In April, the technology firm announced it was investing $168 million (€115.9 million) to help develop the world’s largest solar tower plant in the Mojave Desert in the US.
Shortly before that came word that it had purchased a minority stake in a solar power plant outside Berlin, the reported $5 million (€3.5 million) deal being the Internet search-giant’s first renewable energy project investment in Europe.
Then there was the $100 million invested in the Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in the US state of Oregon, the $5 million (€3.5 million) it pledged toward the construction of transmission lines along the mid-Atlantic US coat to foster the development of wind farms there, and an $8 million venture capital investment in CoolPlanetBiofuels, a biomass startup.
Where did all this interest in renewable energy sector come from?
To find out, Renewable Energy Magazine sought out Parag Chokshi, spokesman for Google Clean Energy, one of two Google divisions focusing on the sector (the other being Google Ventures).
According to Chokshi, Google has been focused on efficiency and sustainability since it was founded in September 1998, and carbon neutral since 2007, the same year the company made its first equity investments in the clean energy sector.
The most recent manifestations of its intent to be sustainable are the corporate clean energy project investments described above.
“Like other companies, we use energy to power our services and we believe the world needs better energy options,” Chokshi said.
“We see clean energy and sustainability as good for the environment, and good for business, so we’ve worked hard to make our own operations as efficient as possible, especially our data centers,” he continued, pointing out that Google is now procuring renewable energy for its operations through the long-term PPAs it has signed for wind energy in the U.S. states of Iowa and Oklahoma.
“We use renewable energy on site at many of our offices, with our largest corporate solar installation being at our headquarters in Mountain View,” Chokshi said. “However, it is challenging to generate enough renewable energy at the necessary reliability ‘behind the meter’ (on site) at our data centres.
“Rather, we believe we can harness the dynamics of the energy markets through the PPAs described above to procure renewable energy for our data centres,” he said.
Apart from headline-grabbing big-dollar investments, Google is also pursuing other green activities, one of the most noteworthy being its Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE
It has also incorporated green features into a number of its products, like Google Earth Engine, Google PowerMeter, and Google Maps, which now features biking directions and locations of electric vehicle charging stations. The company has also added Carbon Disclosure Project ratings into Google Finance.
While the company is obviously proud of its green credentials, it is nevertheless reticent when it comes to its clean energy investment strategy.
In rapid succession Chokshi declined to deal flow (whether they seek out investments or investments come to them), potential new investments, or details about the length of specific investments.
He even declined to offer any details on how many Google employees are working on its clean-energy initiatives.
“We don't discuss personnel allocations, but while most of our staff is based in Mountain View, we have staff working on clean energy and sustainability across the company’s offices,” he said.
But for all that was left unsaid, Chokshi acknowledged that Google is “continuing to look for project investments that meet our criteria, and we do not have an investment goal of a particular dollar amount”.
He also spoke far less guardedly about the attributes Google seeks in the projects it might invest in.
“We look for project investments that will deliver strong financials return given the risks, and that will have a positive impact in the renewable energy sector, which can take several forms,” Chokshi said.
These forms include whether the project is helping a technology scale, supporting a compelling or innovative technology, or relieving a financial constraint.
“You can think of our corporate investments as a way to diversify our cash holdings while investing in an area that we think is important to support,” Choski added. “We believe the supply of cost-effective, renewable energy over the long-term will be critical for our business, and for the world.”
Asked how Google prioritises the sectors – solar, wind, biomass, etc. – it puts its money behind, Choski said the company is, “looking at projects with compelling technologies that could deliver renewable energy cost-effectively at scale and aren’t interested in favouring any one technology over another”.
“So far, we’ve invested in a wide range of projects -- including offshore wind transmission, wind projects that deploy new turbine technologies, and two types of solar energy,” he said. “Ultimately, we believe the world must pursue a range of renewable energy technologies to achieve a clean energy future.”
“We hope that the clean energy project investments we’ve made recently demonstrate that other companies can have a dramatic impact in advancing clean energy for the future, while also taking advantage of attractive financial returns,” Chokshi said.
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