Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Google's energy ideas

This company is amazing. Makes sense, of course, that it has an interest in energy, considering how much energy it must use in its server farms.

October 28, 2008, 7:44 am

Google’s Energy Ideas Might Emerge Under Open Source Licenses — Or Not

Bill Weil (left), Google’s “Green Energy Czar,” and Dan Reicher, the company’s Director for Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, straddle the solar-panel-covered roof at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., last week. The company has big energy plans. (Photo: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times)

Much of what Google is planning as it considers forays into the energy business is a tightly guarded secret. True to form, the company likes to reveal little about its future products until they are ready to be unveiled.

So the task of understanding exactly what the company is up to involves a bit of reading between the lines.

“We can’t really talk too openly about what we are doing just yet,” said Ed Lu, who works in advanced projects at Google. Mr. Lu, a former NASA astronaut, said he could only talk in general terms. “The big area that we are looking at is energy information,” he said.

At Google, Mr. Lu is often referred to as “Ed the astronaut.” He has flown two Space Shuttle missions, spent six months on the International Space Station and orbited the earth about 3,300 times.

He chose to explain Google’s thinking with an analogy. Buying electricity today, he said, is a bit like going to a grocery store where the items have no prices and where you get billed a month later for your purchases. Some engineers in Mr. Lu’s team, are working on tools to turn energy buyers into more informed consumers, he said.

“We see that there is a need here that isn’t being met,” Mr. Lu said. As often is the case with Google, the company plans to introduce a product first and figure out how to profit from it later. Asked when the first Google energy information product would be ready, he said: “We are pretty close. It’s pretty exciting.”

Meanwhile, William E. Weihl, green energy czar at Google, said engineers on his team are doing research and development work in solar, wind and geothermal energy technologies. He described the work, in part, as a hedge against the possible failure of outside companies in those fields that Google has invested in.

As to how Google would commercialize its own energy research — and the intellectual property that rises from it, Mr. Weihl said, “We could potentially start a company to commercialize the IP technology we develop.” Or, he said, Google could also take another approach: Offering up the technology under an open source license, so that others could benefit from it –- and so that Google could benefit in the from of cheaper energy.

He later added: “If there seems that there is a good bet to place by doing it internally, we might do that.”

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