Google Pulls the Plug on a Renewable Energy Effort

By MATTHEW L. WALD
 
Google has quietly dropped a four-year-old initiative to make renewable energy cheaper than coal, which it promoted with an abbreviation that read like a math formula, RE<c .

The company insists that it still supports the development of renewable energy and has major investments in a variety of companies in that area. But it has closed up shop on an effort to improve the engineering of a “power tower,” a giant field of computer-controlled solar mirrors that will focus the sun’s light on a black-painted absorber, heating a liquid inside to a temperature that can be used to make steam for electricity.

Google had sought to improve the reflectors and the wind resistance of the mirrors, called heliostats, among other design factors, and to lower their costs. It has published its results, which call for a fundamental rethinking of the technology.

But none of its research will be used to improve the project, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, on which construction began about a year ago in the Mojave Desert. Although it has dropped its research on the project, overseen by the company BrightSource, Google still has invested $168 million in the venture, said to be the largest of its kind in the world. (The largest investor is NRG, a generating company based in Princeton, N.J., that has put in $300 million.)
Ivanpah is supposed to be completed in 2013 and will generate 392 megawatts of electricity.

Under RE<c, Google also financed the development of a national map of geothermal resources, which it published recently.

The company continues its efforts at energy efficiency, especially for its server farms, a spokesman, Parag Chokshi, said. Google still has plowed a substantial amount of money into wind developments. One form of federal aid to wind farms is an investment tax credit that reduces the tax burden of companies with profits. Through the course of the recession, Google has been one of the few companies with profits to write off against the credit.

And it still has a substantial investment in the Atlantic Wind Connection, an audacious plan to build an electric transmission backbone under the seabed off the East Coast from Virginia to the New York area.

But on its blog, Google announced some “spring cleaning out of season,” saying it was “shutting a number of products which haven’t had the impact we’d hoped for.” In addition to RE<C, the company is closing down Google Bookmark Lists, Google Friend Connect, Google Gears, Google Search Timeline, Google Wave and Knol.

The company’s energy czar, Bill Wiehl, who joined the company in 2006, left this month.

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