Google Energy to start disrupting the utility industry?

Google Energy

Photo credit filippo minelli

There is no doubt about it but Google is a disruptive company.

First Google disrupted search, then advertising, then video (with their acquisition of YouTube), and then Office applications with the launch and continued development of Google Apps for Domains. Most recently Google has disrupted the mobile phone industry, first with the launch of their Android operating system and just a couple of days ago with the launch of their Nexus One mobile phone.

What then should we make of Google’s recent creation of a subsidiary called Google Energy LLC and Google Energy’s request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to buy and sell electricity on the wholesale market [PDF]?

Given Google has already invested in solar power generation, given further that Google has invested in wind and geothermal power generation technologies (as part of its RE < C project), and given that Google has already launched its first product in the Smart Grid space, Google PowerMeter, should we now expect Google to start disrupting the utility industry as well?

Curious about what all this meant I contacted Google spokesperson Niki Fenwick to try to get some answers – see my questions and her responses below:

TR: What was the thinking behind Google’s setting up Google Energy? Why is Google applying to the FERC for permission to trade in electricity?

NF: Google is interested in procuring more renewable energy as part of our carbon neutrality commitment, and the ability to buy and sell energy on the wholesale market could give us more flexibility in doing so. We made this filing so we can have more flexibility in procuring power for Google’s own operations, including our data centers.

TR: Google has made some investments in renewable generation (solar, geothermal and wind), does Google hope to take on the utilities by selling electricity? How does this tie into Google’s PowerMeter project?

NF: This move does not signal our intent to operate as a retail provider and is not related to our free Google PowerMeter home energy monitoring software. We simply want to have the flexibility to explore various renewable energy purchase and sale agreements (that means we can buy electricity wholesale, rather than through a utility).

TR: Will Google Energy be used to develop more Smart Grid products?

NF: We don’t have any plans to announce at this time.

TR: How does this tie into Google’s partnership with GE?

NF: This move isn’t related to our partnership with GE.

So there you have it, according to Google this application to trade in electricity on the wholesale market is simply to gain more flexibility in procuring power for Google’s own operations, as part of Google’s carbon neutrality commitment.

Google have no plans to become a retail electricity provider.

For now. Things change.

After all, it is not so long ago that Google were denying rumours that they were developing a Google phone!

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European Future Energy Forum – opening session

Bianca Jagger at the European Future Energy Forum

The first European Future Energy Forum kicked off this morning in Bilbao.

The opening session in the main auditorium was addressed by the Chair of the World Future Council, Bianca Jagger, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC) which is mandated to undertake and drive the Masdar Initiative, Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the president of the Basque Government, Mr Patxi López and the President of the Regional Government of Bizkaia (a province in the Basque country), Mr Jose Luis Bilbao.

Both Jose Luis Bilbao and Patxi López talked up renewable energy and put the Basque country forward as an area with a strong interest in renewable energy technology. Spain is one of the world’s leading countries in the production of both wind and solar energy, (in January 2009 the total electricity demand produced with renewable energy sources reached the 34.8% saving €90m in gas imports!), however, the Basque country is currently languishing at 5.1% of demand sourced from renewables!

Hopefully Patxi López and Jose Luis Bilbao were impressed enough by the talks from Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and Bianca Jagger to try to increase that %

For their part both Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber and Bianca Jagger gave very interesting talks. Dr Jaber discussed his Masdar project and talked of how Abu Dhabi has had a paradigm shift from a fishing and subsistence nased economy to an oil based one and how it now needs to transition to one based on renewables. Coming from a country which has depended so heavily on oil for its income for so long, it is both heartening and a little disquieting to hear that Abu Dhabi is now looking to get into renewables. Can you say Peak Oil? Dr Jaber also made the case for the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to be based in Masdar.

Bianca Jagger, the Chair of the World Future Council, gave a hugely impressive, fact based and impassioned speech quoting variously and at ease from Nasa’s Jim Hansen, Nicholas Stern (author of the Stern Review, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank) and the reports of the IPCC. Ms Jagger aimed a broadside squarely at the nuclear industry whom she accused of Greenwashing by trying to pass themselves off as non-carbon emitting. Every stage of nuclear generation, from mining to dealing with the waste byproducts generates CO2, she said and nuclear energy emits significantly more CO2 than wind, solar or hydro. Ms Jagger also referenced the foundation of IRENA and emphasised its importance and she finished off asking if the 20% renewable energy by 2020 goals of the EU were going to be enough to avert a climate catastrophe.


The cheaper the electricity the lower its carbon footprint!

Supply and demand

Photo Credit Milton CJ

I was speaking at the EventoBlog España conference on Saturday and I made the comment that electricity’s carbon footprint tends to increase as it becomes more expensive.

In follow-up questions, I failed to explain well what I meant so I will attempt to do so here.

Electricity pricing (on the wholesale market) is a function of supply and demand. When demand is high, electricity is expensive, when demand is low, electricity is typically cheap.

For weather based renewables (wind, solar, wave) – they produce power completely independently of the price of electricity, so they produce the same amount whether electricity is cheap or expensive.

Since weather based renewables are on average a constant percentage then they tend to have a higher slice of the market when electricity is in low demand/cheaper.

In other words, weather based renewables are independent of demand, therefore at times of low demand, they have a higher share of the market. This is even more so the case for wind which tends to blow more at night when demand is lower.

As there is a definite correlation between low demand and low price, it can be said by extension that the cheaper the electricity, the lower its carbon footprint!


Space based solar power?

I saw an announcement the other day on the National Space Society‘s website about a breakthrough in Space-based solar power.

Normally the stuff of science fiction, it turns out that John C. Mankins, former manager of NASA’s Exploration Systems Research and Technology Program, performed a milestone demonstration of the critical technology enabling Space Solar Power: long-distance, solar-powered wireless power transmission.

According to the release on the Space Power Association site:

During the week of May 5-9, 2008, a key step on the path to Space-Based Solar Power was achieved: a “first-of-a-kind” long-range demonstration of solar-powered wireless power transmission using a solid-state phased array transmitter located on the U.S. island of Maui (on Haleakala) and receivers located on the island of Hawai’i (Mauna Loa) and airborne. The demonstration, achieved by Managed Energy Technologies LLC of the U.S. and sponsored by Discovery Communications, Inc., involved the transmission of RF energy over a distance of up to 148 kilometers (about 90 miles): almost 100-times further than a major 1970s power transmission performed by NASA in the Mojave Desert in California. The 2008 project (which lasted only 5 months and cost less than $1M) proved that real progress toward Space Solar Power can be made quickly, affordably and internationally, including key participants from the U.S. and Japan.

A number of key technologies were integrated and tested together for the first time in this project, including solar power modules, solid-state FET amplifiers, and a novel “retrodirective” phase control system. In addition, the project developed the first ever “field-deployable” system-developing new information regarding the prospective economics of space solar power / wireless power transmission systems

There are a lot of announcements coming out at the moment about advancements in solar power but of them all, this one has to be one of the most intriguing!

Will it ever become a reality? Who knows, but with this proof-of concept a significant barrier has been removed!


HP teaming with Xtreme Energetics to produce cheaper, more efficient cheaper solar

Photovoltaic array
Photo Credit Pink Dispatcher

James and I had lunch the other day with Simon Wardley.

During the course of what turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion Simon brought up the topic of flexible solar panels. I was delighted to read today then that Xtreme Energetics and HP are teaming up to produce

a solar energy system designed to generate electricity at twice the efficiency and half the cost of traditional solar panels

According to the piece, XP will use thin-film, transparent transistors developed by HP which are made from readily available materials such as Zinc and Tin – which have the added advantage of not having environmental issues.

Within 24 months, the company will release roof panels integrated with HP’s technology to deliver dramatic energy gains at a comparable price point to conventional PV systems, Colin Williams, CEO of Xtreme Energetics said. “Our panels will be twice as efficient, we’ll be able to deliver a higher energy density, and customers will have the option of choosing a color.”

The fact that the electronics are transparent means that more light gets through and thus the efficiency is further improved.

If these are truly transparent, south-facing windows on buildings could have these applied without significant impact on light entering the building. Ten at times when most energy is needed (sunny days when the aircon is turned up to 11), these transparent PV walls are cranking out the power to cool the building.

It is cheaper peak shaving – I like it.