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Google axes clean energy hacking

The search giant declared victory and officially shut down Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal, an attempt to push down solar costs.

Google's prototype heliostat was designed to be cheap by using inexpensive materials and software controls.

news analysis Google yesterday pulled the plug on an ambitious green-technology initiative, a casualty of the Internet giant's strategy to shed peripheral projects.

In a company blog, Google's senior vice president of operations and Google Fellow Urs Holzle listed "Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal" as one of seven projects that were being shut down because they didn't catch on as hoped.

Google had a team of engineers working on a sun-tracking mirror, or heliostat, that would be cheaper to manufacture and use less water than conventional concentrating solar products. Yesterday, the team published a number of technical recommendations and noted that solar photovoltaic technology has fallen substantially in price over the past few years for consumers. "At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level," Holzle said.

As part of the same initiative, Google also invested in solar, wind, and geothermal start-ups, two of which--eSolar and BrightSource Energy--have grown substantially and have solar technology working in the field. It's also put some $850 million in renewable energy projects and improved the efficiency of its data centers.

Those investments should have a lasting effect. But the broader impact of Google's jump into energy in 2007 was to help shape the national discussion on energy.

As a high profile company known for its technical savvy, Google explicitly made the case that technology development was simply happening too slowly for renewable energy to compete with coal on price. It had the mindset and resources to show others that technical innovation can't be left to stodgy utilities or oil-and-gas companies. In that regard, Google helped move the ball forward.

"We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centers," Google CEO Larry Page said at the time. "We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal."

Its departure from actually employing energy engineers can also be seen as part of the larger learning curve that technologists, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs have laboriously climbed for the past four years.

In 2007, many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who had worked in IT were eager to build green technologies to help mitigate climate change. But as many discovered, energy is a capital-intensive industry that takes years to change and years for scientific developments to mature.

Google's shutdown of Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal is part of a broader edging away from the energy sector. The company axed its PowerMeter home energy monitoring Web application earlier this year and its green energy czar, Bill Weihl, recently left the company.

Google said that it intends to continue supporting renewable energy and efficiency in other ways on its campus and data centers. So rather than creating buzz around clean energy entrepreneurship, Google now seems content to take on the role of well heeled green-business role model.