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Google Focuses On Creating Cheap “˜Green’ Mirror Technology

September 10, 2009

Google has failed to come up with sufficient breakthrough investment ideas within the green technology sector,  but the company continues to work on develop its own new mirror technology that effectively cuts the cost of building solar thermal plants by 25 percent or more.

“We’ve been looking at very unusual materials for the mirrors both for the reflective surface as well as the substrate that the mirror is mounted on,” head of the company’s green energy sector Bill Weihl told Reuters Wednesday at a Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco.

Search engine giant Google said in late 2007 that it would begin investing in companies and conduct its own research to bring affordable renewable energy to the table within a few years.

Engineers within the company have been honing in on solar thermal technology, in which the sun’s energy is used to heat up a substance that produces steam to turn a turbine. Mirrors are used to focus the sun’s rays on the heated substance.

According to Weihl, Google is seeking to reduce the cost of making heliostats, which is the fields of mirrors that have to track the sun, by at least a factor of two. He noted that the ideal factor would be three or four.

Weihl went on to say, “Typically what we’re seeing is $2.50 to $4 a watt (for) capital cost”¦so a 250 megawatt installation would be $600 million to a $1 billion. It’s a lot of money.”

The hope is that Google will be able to produce a viable technology to show internally within a couple of months, Weihl told Reuters. This will require accelerated testing in order to expose the impact that decades of wear on the new mirrors in desert conditions has had.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I’m very hopeful we will have mirrors that are cheaper than what companies in the space are using…”

Google has also been working on gas turbine technology that would run on solar power rather than natural gas. Weihl believes that this idea could potentially further reduce the cost of electricity.

“In two to three years we could be demonstrating a significant scale pilot system that would generate a lot of power and would be clearly mass manufacturable at a cost that would give us a levelized cost of electricity that would be in the 5 cents or sub 5 cents a kilowatt hour range,” Weihl said.

Currently, Google is invested in two solar thermal companies, eSolar and BrightSolar but is not working with them on developing cheaper mirrors or turbines.

Weihl also claimed that the United States should significantly increase government-backed research, especially in the beginning stages, which would encourage more breakthrough ideas in the sector.

There is not a sufficient number of companies coming up with breakthrough ideas in the green technology sector, Weihl said.

Since announcing new plans to create renewable energy for cheaper than power from coal, Google has invested less than $50 million in other companies.

Weihl said that Google had not planned to invest much more in early years, but that there was not much to buy anyhow.

“I would say it’s reasonable to be a little bit discouraged there and from my point of view, it’s not right to be seriously discouraged,” he said. “There isn’t enough investment going into the early stages of investment pipeline before the venture funds come into the play.”

He went on to reemphasize the need for the U.S. government to up its funding for the development ideas at the laboratory stage.

“I’d like to see $20 billion or $30 billion for 10 yrs (for the sector),” Weihl said. “That would be fabulous. It’s pretty clear what we have seen isn’t enough.”

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