Google CEO: How to fix U.S. energy problems

The nation's energy problems are as big as the financial crisis, CEO Eric Schmidt says, and the time to fix them is now. Here's the search giant's plan.

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--The United States government has been unable to fix the country's energy problems, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said, but the Internet giant on Wednesday proposed its own 22-year solution.

"We have seen a total and complete failure of leadership in the political parties of the United States," Schmidt said in a speech at the Commonwealth Club here. "We've been working on a plan to help solve this problem."

Google CEO Eric Schmidt
Google CEO Eric Schmidt describes the company's energy plan. Stephen Shankland/CNET News

Earlier in the day, Google unveiled that plan, which doesn't lack for chutzpah: Clean Energy 2030 aims to wean the United States from its dependence on fossil fuels within 22 years.

Schmidt said the plan requires $4.5 trillion in spending to pull it off, but it'll pay for itself with $5.5 trillion in savings. "With this plan, it's cheaper to fix global warming than it is to ignore it," Schmidt said.

The general plan consists of various efforts to save energy; a shift to renewable wind, geothermal, and solar energy; and a complete cessation of energy from coal and oil and halving of natural gas. Those changes would cut energy production-related carbon dioxide emissions from about 6 billion metric tons per year today to 4 billion per year in 2030.

Energy efficiency is at the forefront of Google's thoughts: the company operates hundreds of thousands of servers, and the company has warned that energy costs could outpace server hardware costs. So a decline in energy costs makes practical sense, Schmidt said.

"We save a lot of money when prices go down. It's good for shareholders, good for earnings," he said.

However, he made clear in a meeting with reporters later that the effort is also driven by the moral beliefs of Google's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Also on Wednesday, Google announced the fruits of its effort to increase the energy efficiency of its data centers.

Google's Clean Energy 2030 plan would completely eliminate coal and oil use for energy production in 22 years.
Google's Clean Energy 2030 plan would completely eliminate coal and oil use for energy production in 22 years. Google

Economic stimulus
The present financial crisis, with an expected bailout that will cost $700 billion, likely will be followed by further economic stimulus spending that likely will reach $100 million, Schmidt predicted.

"Why not use that money to solve once and for all the things we debate: energy security, rising oil prices, a lack of jobs--especially in rural areas--(and) a lack of technology investment?" Schmidt said. "If you follow my reasoning and take advantage of the technological opportunities--and the apparent willingness of the government to write large checks during a crisis--we can do this."

He acknowledged that the problem will require sustained attention to solve, but said that's the job of governments. "The government spends lots of money on many things that are strategic. It seems to me that energy independence, given the history of the last 10 years, should be at the top of the list," Schmidt said.

Google predicts energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will drop by about a third with its plan.
Google predicts energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will drop by about a third with its plan. Google

Energy plan details
How does Google propose to transform the country's energy usage? Here's Google's description:

• Deploying aggressive end-use electrical energy efficiency measures (about 1.4 percent per year savings) to reduce demand 33 percent.

• Replacing all coal and oil electricity generation, and about half of that from natural gas, with renewable electricity: 380 gigawatts (GW) wind: 300 GW onshore + 80 GW offshore; 250 GW solar: 170 GW photovoltaic + 80 GW concentrating solar power; 80 GW geothermal: 15 GW conventional + 65 GW enhanced geothermal systems

• Increasing plug-in vehicles (hybrids & pure electrics) to 90 percent of new car sales in 2030, reaching 42 percent of the total U.S. fleet that year

• Increasing new conventional vehicle fuel efficiency from 31 mpg to 45 mpg in 2030

• Accelerating the turnover of the vehicle fleet from 19 to 13 years (resulting in 25 million new vehicle sales per year in 2030, a 31 percent increase over the baseline)

Advising Obama
Schmidt, who said he's an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, said he prefers that candidate's energy plans. "The Obama program is more in line with the one I'm describing," Schmidt said.

He also dinged Republicans for using the term "clean coal," which he called an oxymoron not unlike "limited nuclear war," and said that offshore oil drilling, although a lively topic of debate, will satisfy only a tiny fraction of the nation's needs and only five years from now at that.

Now is the time to offer the plan, according to author Jeffery Greenblatt, climate and energy technology manager for the company's philanthropic Google.org arm.

"With a new administration and Congress--and multiple energy-related imperatives--this is an opportune, perhaps unprecedented, moment to move from plan to action," Greenblatt said.