Google’s RE<C initiative

by Milan on February 25, 2010

in Economics, Power plants, Renewables

While it may not have the most easily expressible name, the idea behind Google.org’s Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE<C) initiative is an exciting one. Their aim is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity at a lower price than a similarly sized coal facility would be. A gigawatt is about what one large nuclear reactor puts out, and is sufficient to power a city like San Francisco. Notably, their aim is to beat the standard commercial price of coal, not the price that would exist if factors like pollution and climate change were taken into account.

The project is initially focused on concentrating solar power, where mirrors are used to concentrate sunlight and generate heat to turn a turbine; wind power; and enhanced geothermal energy, where the interior heat of the planet is accessed through artificial rather than natural channels.

If RE<C succeeds, it will be a major accomplishment. Right now, most people assume that renewables will always be slow to deploy and more expensive than fossil fuel alternatives. If Google’s charitable arm can show both of those assumptions to be invalid, people will start questioning more and more whether all the health, environmental, and security costs of fossil fuel dependence are worth it.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia February 25, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Hopefully, now the last decade’s more intensive research into renewables has provided a better base for product development, now the market’s increased confidence in ongoing demand (from limitations in the capacity of the conventional energy supply framework, any carbon-reduction drivers in play) has smoothed the path from concept to production for green energies, and now energy supply is a bigger blip on governments’ radars, we will soon start to see faster larger scale rollout of more efficient consumer and national energy solutions and the notion of the ‘green premium’ on energy will start to erode.
That’s not to say that managing energy sources, supply and demand won’t become increasingly challenging, or that costs will vastly reduce overall. Given the growing number of countries looking to increase development and build-in economic growth demanding increased energy supplies, there is no clear prospect for supply improvements keep pace with (even CO2-managed) global growth in demand and that is going to keep all energy prices high. Efficient renewables would solve many nations energy and national security headaches – the UK-Argentine Falklands tiff at the moment is probably the first of many and, apart from the concerns covered in the ‘Fossil Fuels and the Resource Curse‘ post, we can expect to see increasing diplomatic furore’s (and conflicts) over pipeline closures (see the increasing profile of issues with the Russia oil pipeline to Europe via Ukraine ) or resource grabs, legitimate or frontier-style (again Russia – the flag under the North Pole had may have seemed comical but is just an early round in manoevering for the untapped and increasingly accessible energy and mineral wealth).
Natural resources are unlikely to fall out of a managed-CO2 picture as new energy technologies and sequestration schemes are likely to make related raw components more valuable, but however the environmental trade-offs work at least CO2 headaches wouldn’t be adding to the complications.

Antonia February 25, 2010 at 2:11 pm

The more (literally and in media terms) visible projects like Spain’s Solar Tower and Arizona’s are likely helping perceptions elsewhere but unfortunately the weather in Canada and the UK rules any out local aspiration of making this wikipedia list of solar thermal power stations (completed and under construction).
However, this shows the velocity following lift-off of such renewable projects as, since opening Europe’s first solar tower in 2007, Spain is really forging ahead at a rate far beyond other nations and will have a great base to export their expertise for other nations programmes likely in Africa and Australia.
Meantime under damper skies such progress in large scale new renewable energy technologies is obscure, and reports are less of large scale success and more of small-scale inefficiencies and disruption.
Small-scale old renewables may be about to get more popular, though they contribute less to changing perceptions of the costs and inconveniences of going low-CO2. Interesting to see that Canada already leads in small-scale hydroelectricity and is being looked to overseas.

Antonia February 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Article on solar efficiencies of the Arizona solar plant http://climateprogress.org/2009/04/23/arizona-csp-solar-thermal-storage/

. March 8, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Testimony of Dan W. Reicher
Director, Climate Change and Energy Initiatives
Google

before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Legislative Hearing on S. 1733
Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act
October 28, 2009

“At Google we have been working to lower the cost and increase the deployment of renewable energy through our Renewable Electricity Cheaper than Coal (RE<C) Initiative and also to accelerate the deployment of plug-in vehicles through our RechargeIT Initiative.

Google published a scenario in the fall of 2008 called Clean Energy 2030, which outlines one potential path to weaning the U.S. off of coal for electricity generation and cutting oil use for cars by more than 40%. Altogether the Clean Energy 2030 proposal reduces US CO2 emissions about 50% below the baseline projection, while creating 9 million jobs and doing so with net savings of $800 billion. Importantly, under the Clean Energy 2030 Plan, investment in energyefficient technology would keep electrical demand flat at the current level rather than allowing it to grow 25% as currently projected.

Having kept demand flat with efficiency, Clean Energy 2030 proposes gradually replacing coal and oil for electricity generation with wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower. By 2030, about 68% of generation would come from these sources, with continuing use of nuclear power and natural gas. In the personal vehicles sector, by increasing fuel efficiency in conventional cars to 45 mpg, and massive deployment of plug-in electric vehicles, we would reduce fuel consumption 44% relative to the baseline, and dramatically cut oil imports. Together, these changes would reduce CO2 emissions in 2030 enough to move the nation about halfway to the 83% by 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal in the bill we are reviewing today. Such a massive build-out of electric generation capacity, efficiency improvements, and plug-in vehicles would cost $3.9 trillion, but save $4.7 trillion from avoided fossil generation capacity, and lower electricity and fuel costs.

Looking ahead, an advanced geothermal energy technology called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) presents another opportunity where strong energy policy – and a price on carbon – could drive a high potential new industry. EGS has the potential to produce cheap, renewable, baseload generation 24 hours a day, year-round and nationwide, directly replacing coal capacity on the grid. With EGS, geothermal reservoirs can be "manufactured" to very large scale. While naturally existing geothermal reservoirs are relatively limited and concentrated in the Western U.S., high temperature rock capable of supporting power production with EGS is massive and nationwide."

. March 15, 2010 at 8:55 am

If we, as a global society, can develop and deploy electricity generating technologies that are cheaper than coal, yet emit no CO2 when operating, then we can realistically fix the carbon problem in time without the need to impose a carbon price. After all, even if you were unconcerned about carbon pollution, why would you choose to build a coal-fired power station –which has to be fed huge amounts of mined fuel and which produces large amounts of unhealthy fly ash, heavy metals, sulphate and black carbon aerosols etc. — if there was a cheaper alternative? (be it nuclear power, solar thermal, whatever)

If the above reasoning is valid, then it is reasonable to consider what, in addition, a carbon price might achieve. There has been a lot of recent heated debate in this thread on that very point! One obviously positive outcome would be to hasten — rapidly, if the price rose quickly and followed a clear schedule — the deployment of non-coal alternatives, because they’d become relatively cheaper than coal more quickly, and would also be favoured in medium- to long-term financial planning, compared to the situation where it was left only to the market via ‘nth-of-a-kind’ engineering/economic cost reductions (and the uncertainty associated with the price-parity-cross-over point). A carbon price might also provide a strong motivation to ‘backfill’ the coal problem, such as encouraging nations to look at innovative ideas such as Jim Holm’s Coal2Nuclear strategy. A negative outcome (putting aside the socio-political difficulties in getting a price implemented in the first place), would be that electricity prices would rise in the short- to medium-term, and this would risk stymieing sustainable development (other arguments for the negative case are detailed by Peter Lang, TerjeP, and some other commenters, here).”

. March 15, 2010 at 8:57 am

“Jim said (I’m paraphrasing): ‘Barry, it’s a nice idea, but I don’t buy it. If nations start building lots of cheap nuclear or solar power plants, the demand for coal is going to drop through the floor. At that point, coal will get real cheap, and someone, somewhere, will burn it. Or turn it into liquid fuels. And they’ll keep using it for coking iron, and so on. The bottom line is that we’ve got to stop using coal within the next few decades. Slowing down over this century is not enough. We have to leave most of it in the ground‘.”

. November 22, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Business as usual will not deliver low-cost, clean energy fast enough to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. We need a clean energy revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than carbon-intensive alternatives such as coal. Google has launched an R&D group to develop electricity from renewable energy sources at a cost less than coal. Google's initiative to develop renewable energy cheaper than coal, known as RE<C, will perform Research and Development in advanced solar thermal power, wind power, enhanced geothermal systems, and other breakthrough technologies. This effort is about more than our own needs as an energy consumer, but rather the planet's needs for clean and cheap renewable energy.

. November 22, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Google announced today on its official blog the impending closure of a number of its less successful services. In addition to retiring minor features like Bookmarks List and Friend Connect, Google has outlined a plan to close down Wave. The experimental communication medium will go read-only on January 31, and on April 30 they will shut it down completely. Also on April 30, Google will be changing Knol so that individual knols are not viewable, though users will still be able to download and export them until October 1, at which point they’ll disappear entirely. Google Gears is also getting the axe, as is Search Timeline and the Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative

. November 22, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal (RE<C)—This initiative was developed as an effort to drive down the cost of renewable energy, with an RE<C engineering team focused on researching improvements to solar power technology. At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level. So we’ve published our results to help others in the field continue to advance the state of power tower technology, and we’ve closed our efforts. We will continue our work to generate cleaner, more efficient energy—including our on-campus efforts, procuring renewable energy for our data centers, making our data centers even more efficient and investing more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies.

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