Solar Gets Googled

PHOTO: Google

Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page plugging in a RechargeIT hybrid electric car.

Corporate America has discovered solar energy. Is it a fad or the start of a fundamental shift toward renewable energy? Associate Editor Sandra Upson explores the intricacies of big companies going solar in ”The Greening of Google,” in this issue.

Google garnered frenzied media attention in June when it fired up 9000-plus polysilicon panels mounted on rooftops at its complex in Mountain View, Calif. (check out the Google Solar Panel Project monitor at http://www.google.com/corporate/ solarpanels/home to see a real-time tally of their output). When fully operational, the panels will be able to generate 1.6 megawatts of electricity, about 30 percent of the total needed to run the buildings they sit on at the headquarters, known as the Googleplex. The company is also using solar power to charge a fleet of hybrid electric vehicles to promote the development and use of plug-in hybrids. And it plans to generate an additional 50 MW of renewable energy by 2012. Google can take such steps more easily than many other companies because it is flush with cash and doesn’t need an immediate return on its investment, and because California subsidizes solar investments more than any other U.S. state.

What makes the Google solar project more than a green publicity stunt is that it is part of a larger energy strategy that encompasses conservation efforts. The company plans to continue improving the energy efficiency of its densely packed, power-intensive data centers, home to hundreds of thousands of servers worldwide. It has been installing more efficient lighting and building control systems in all its corporate locations. And it runs a biodiesel-fueled shuttle service for its employees at the Mountain View location. Google also has situated its new Oregon data center precisely where hydropower is cheap and abundant.

Reaching out beyond the problem of its own energy issues, Google this year joined forces with Intel and a number of other technology heavy hitters, including Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft, and Pacific Gas & Electric, to launch the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a consortium that plans to set new efficiency targets for computers, which are notoriously wasteful of energy. Another industry consortium called Green Grid is pursuing similar goals.

Google says it wants to be carbon-neutral by 2008, a huge challenge given the power-hungry nature of its businesses. But if Google and the Microsofts and Wal-Marts of the world continue their concerted efforts to save energy and invest in renewable sources, and government policies continue to encourage them to do so, this could be the start of something big.

So whatever you think about the economic logic of solar energy or the wisdom of subsidizing renewable energy—or about the fact or fiction of climate change, for that matter—you’ve got to give Google and the rest of the participating corporate giants credit for taking on this important work. Maximizing energy efficiency and pursuing workable alternatives to fossil fuel–based energy isn’t just green. It’s good engineering sense.

MacCready’s Last Flight

Paul MacCready, prolific inventor of human- and sun-powered machines, died in August. He built the Gossamer Condor, the first practical human-powered flight machine; the Gossamer Albatross; the Gossamer Penguin, the world’s first successful solar-powered airplane; and the Solar Challenger, which awakened the world to the possibilities of solar energy. In 1981 the Challenger flew 262 kilometers, from France to England. In 1987, MacCready’s team also designed the solar-powered Sunraycer car for General Motors, to compete in the Solar Challenge, the first competition to cross Australia from Darwin south to Adelaide. The Sunraycer won, and its success led MacCready to work on the EV-1 line of electric-powered cars for GM.

Contributors to a special section for condolences on the Web site of his company, AeroVironment, refer to him as a cherished inspiration. ”More than anyone I know, he was aware of the dangers we all face due to environmental abuse, and he was aware of the possibilities for solving these problems,” says Wally E. Rippel, principal power electronics engineer at Tesla Motors in San Carlos, Calif., who worked with MacCready on the EV-1 project. ”It is my desire that people will remember him not just for his aeronautical accomplishments but also for his environmental vision and achievements. May others follow passionately in his footsteps.” We couldn’t agree more.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not reflect official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum atn.hantman@ieee.org.

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