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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Google Power

With its green-power initiative, is the search-engine dynamo catching another huge wave of new technology?
saving electricity
CORRECTION: This article originally said that wind power would have to increase 250-fold; that was incorrect. The actual increase required is closer to 24-fold.

About eight weeks before the presidential election, Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt, a Barack Obama supporter, turned to a staffer at Google.org and asked what a Google energy plan for America would look like.

At the time, not long after retail gasoline prices topped $4 a gallon, it seemed as if everyone had a plan—the Al Gore plan, the Obama plan, the John McCain plan. Schmidt wanted a plan, too.

The result, Clean Energy 2030: Google's Proposal for Reducing U.S. Dependence on Fossil Fuels, received little attention, other than in several speeches last fall by Schmidt himself. But now that plan is starting to turn into products, and has caught the eye of some serious energy wonks.

On Monday, Google Inc. unveiled a prototype of its first energy product, Google PowerMeter, an online system that processes and displays information about a person's residential electricity use to aid in energy conservation.

"We really need to look seriously at the Google energy plan; it's quite viable," said Jon Wellinghoff, whom President Obama just appointed interim chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which controls the national electric grid.

Think of Google's blueprint, which was drafted by Jeffery Greenblatt, a pony-tailed Ph.D. who had spent years modeling energy and climate scenarios at Princeton University and Environmental Defense Fund, as a federal bailout of sorts for the climate crisis.

The crux is a government-led blitz into energy conservation, renewable energy sources and plug-in electric vehicles that, by 2030, would reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by more than 40 percent from today's level. The numbers, while daunting, are doable, Google insists.

First, through efficiency measures, Google would stabilize U.S. electricity use at 2008 levels. (Its model here is California, which, since implementing rules to reward utilities for conservation instead of power production, has kept per-capita energy use flat for 35 years.)

Then, by 2030, Google would phase out all U.S. power production from coal and oil, and half from natural gas, replacing the fossil fuels with electricity from wind (pegged at 29 percent of 2030 supply), solar (12 percent) and enhanced geothermal (15 percent).

Google says the overhaul would create nine million jobs. Some of the plan's considerable costs could be covered by the billions in subsidies and tax incentives included in the $825 billion stimulus package passed by the Senate on Tuesday.

In transportation, Google would raise fuel-efficiency standards for conventional cars to 45 miles per gallon by 2030, up from the current requirement of 35 mpg by 2020. Google would also jump start the market for plug-in electric vehicles so that 20 percent of new U.S. cars would run on electricity by 2020—rising to 90 percent of new cars by 2030.

These steps would reduce gasoline consumption—and thus vehicle CO2 emissions—by 44 percent in the U.S., Google says.

To meet Google's targets, the U.S. production of wind power would have to grow some 24-fold from today's level in the next two decades; the output of solar power would need to rise 250-times. Still, Greenblatt, the plan's author, says such enormous increases "aren't unprecedented," citing previous building binges for nuclear and natural-gas power plants.

"In no case are we assuming absurd levels of growth," Greenblatt insists. "Solar is already growing 50 percent a year."

The PowerMeter is the company's initial stab at the efficiency side of the equation.

Ed Lu, one of the Google engineers leading the energy team—and a two-time Space Shuttle astronaut for NASA who lived at the international space station for six months—wrote on the Google.org site that the PowerMeter is still being tested at Google employees' homes.

When connected to appliances and household wiring, the system is meant to display users' electricity consumption in real time. That information becomes critical if utilities to adopt time-of-day pricing, which would make electricity costlier at peak hours and cheaper at off hours. This would smooth out demand and make better use of generating capacity. The goal is to encourage consumers to monitor and adjust their consumption to cut costs and energy use.

"In a world where everyone had a detailed understanding of their home energy use, we could find all sorts of ways to save energy and lower electricity bills," Lu wrote. Studies have found that access to home energy information results in savings of 5percent to 15 percent on monthly electricity bills, he added.

"It may not sound like much," Lu wrote, "but if half of America's households cut their energy demand by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road."

The PowerMeter is part of the growing effort in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to cash in on so-called smart-grid technology—wiring the nation's electricity infrastructure with computers, monitors, and other high-tech gear.

Google is lobbying hard in Washington for federal money for smart grid, along with General Electric Corp. and others. Companies have been particularly interested in promoting the availability of real-time energy information, which can make utilities and customers far more efficient producers and consumers.

Google says there currently about 40 million smart meters in use worldwide—instruments that give users detailed information about their electricity consumption—with plans to add another 100 million in the next few years.

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