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Google in energy: Imitator or innovator?

In Google's renewable-energy initiative, there are new ideas, and some reruns. Is the eSolar investment more of a VC deal than a way to push the frontiers of science?

Google announced on Tuesday plans to put hundreds of millions of dollars into alternative energy. The question now is whether the company is advancing the state of the art or just imitating everyone else who is dumping loads of money into the field.

The answer is some of both.

One of the first companies to get funding from Google will be eSolar, which will make solar thermal plants based on the heliostat design. In this concept, an array of flat mirrors gathers and directs sunlight onto a water tower. The water boils into steam, which turns a turbine to make electricity.

The heliostat system is superior to other solar-thermal projects because the mirrors cost less, construction is easier, and more of the heat gathered by the mirrors ultimately gets used to make electricity.

The only problem for eSolar is that it hasn't, exactly, been an innovator during the past couple of years. Oakland's BrightSource Energy has been touting the heliostat system for a while. It is currently building a prototype plant in Israel and has already cleared many of the regulatory hurdles to build a 400-megawatt station in California.

BrightSource also has experience on its side. It was founded by Arnold Goldman, who founded Luz more than 20 years ago. Luz built some of the world's largest solar-thermal plants. In fact, plants churning more than 300 megawatts of power built by Luz years ago in the Mojave are still cranking out power.

Many of the engineers who worked on the Luz projects are at BrightSource. In a recent interview, Goldman said the company's researchers have been examining the pros and cons of heliostat systems for more than a decade.

Who is at eSolar? The chairman is Bill Gross, who founded eToys, Overture Services, and Idealab. While he has created a company for residential solar energy, most of his experience is in the Internet. Other members of the executive team have experience in solar, but it doesn't appear that they have a lot of experience in building large-scale thermal plants. It is also unclear whether the company has plans for prototypes or large-scale plants under way.

It's not like eSolar can't pull this off, but it's clear that it isn't exactly doing something original. This is really more of a venture capital-type deal than a way to push the frontiers of science. And let's not forget that there are other solar-thermal companies out there, such as Ausra, that have built prototypes and signed large scale contracts already.

On the other hand, Google is putting money into Makani Power, which wants to harvest power from high-flying kites. A few companies have experimented with this, but it's in the very early research stage. Here, Google can clearly be an innovator.

Google also wants to get into advanced geothermal energy. Geothermal already exists, but it also could use a lot more research-and-development support. Alexander Karsner, the assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Department of Energy, says geothermal cannot provide 20 percent of the United States' electricity need,s as some advocates claim.

You can look at this in two ways: geothermal doesn't have much hope, or that it's a field ripe for turning over conventional wisdom. Thus, depending on what occurs here, Google could push the state of innovation forward.