Google gets go-ahead to buy, sell energy

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's order paves the way for Google to become a major energy player.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authorized Google Energy to buy and sell electricity in bulk like any other utility.

The FERC, the agency with oversight of the U.S. power grid, signed an order (PDF) on Thursday that grants Google Energy market-based rate authorization. This paves the way for the search giant to not only better manage its own energy costs, but to possibly add electricity marketer to its repertoire of services.

The order specifically grants Google Energy--a subsidiary of Google--the rights "for the sale of energy, capacity, and ancillary services at market-based rates" while acknowledging that neither Google Energy nor its affiliates "own or control any generation or transmission" facilities.

Google has expressed a desire for access to larger amounts of renewable energy to help produce the electricity it consumes as part of its vast search-engine empire. Google has long maintained that its goal is to become a carbon-neutral company. As a side note, it's not unusual for large companies to be granted the authority to trade in the wholesale electricity market for the purpose of managing their own energy costs.

As recently as January--after Google Energy made its request to FERC--the company maintained that its expressed immediate wish was for more control over electricity pricing to more effectively gain access to affordable renewable energy.

"Right now, we can't buy affordable, utility-scale, renewable energy in our markets. We want to buy the highest quality, most affordable renewable energy wherever we can and use the green credits," Google representative Niki Fenwick told CNET News at the time.

But it seems that Google may actually enter the energy business. The search giant formed the Delaware-based subsidiary called Google Energy in December and when asked about it, hinted at a future in energy.

"We don't have any concrete plans. We want the ability to buy and sell electricity in case it becomes part of our portfolio," Fenwick told CNET News in January.

Google's escalating interest in energy
Prior to that obvious play, the company has been testing the energy industry waters through green energy technology investment, and research.

In 2007, Google pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help engineers and scientists figure out a way to generate 1 gigawatt of clean electricity and make it cheaper than coal.

In 2008, Google CEO Eric Schmidt presented an energy plan--complete with explicit math calculations--to back up an idea for how the U.S. could eventually get 100 percent of its electric power generation from renewable sources, cut emissions by half, create more jobs, and decrease overall energy costs.

Google has also invested hundred of millions in green energy technology research and start-up companies with projects in wind, solar, solar thermal, and geothermal. It has invested in projects to develop plug-in hybrid cars and has developed with its own "smart charging" software for plug-in electric vehicles.

The company has launched its own energy pilot projects including a 1.6-megawatt solar installation for its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, thought to be the largest corporate-owned installation in the U.S.

Google has even developed a smart metering software platform for monitoring and regulating home electricity use from any Web-enabled phone. Google Power has been testing the software in the U.K., as well as unveiling a U.S. version for smart phones.

Its most notable electricity investment success story might be eSolar, a start-up that grew out of the Google Idealab and offers "turnkey" thermal solar energy plants using software-controlled heliostats. The company has already garnered over 500 megawatts worth of projects for Southern California Edison and several utilities in the southwestern U.S., with projects in the pipeline for China, Spain, the Middle East, and South Africa.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were also early investors in the electric car maker Tesla.

And in the lead-up to the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change, Google hosted its own energy conference in November that included leading energy experts and the U.S. undersecretary of energy.

Google could not immediately be reached for comment.