It appears that Google is getting ever deeper into the sun business. Stating that it is dissatisfied with the general lack of progress on achieving breakthroughs in green technology, the company wants to build better highly reflective and rugged mirrors — as well as the mirror substrate that the reflective surface is mounted on. By reflecting more light and more of the solar spectrum than ordinary mirrors these mirrors have the potential to reduce the cost of solar thermal systems by up to 25 per cent.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are already involved in the solar energy sector as a key investor in several solar technology firms, notably in NanoSolar and Google itself has recently participated in a $115 million round of funding for BrightSource Energy, an Oakland, Calif., solar thermal startup. Google is also invested in eSolar, a utility scale solar thermal startup headquartered in Pasadena, Ca.
Solar Mirrors Are Critically Important
So this latest move should not really surprise; it is a logical progression into the space. The folks at Google realize that one of the critical elements of all solar thermal systems is very high quality mirrors that have the requisite high reflectivity needed to build efficient and lower cost solar thermal systems, whether they are trough based systems, dish type systems, or solar towers using fields of heliostats to focus light energy.
“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,” Google’s green energy czar Bill Weihl said at the Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco.
The cost of the mirrors or heliostats, which focus the sun’s energy on a small area heating some carrier fluid, such as oil or molten salt to very high temperatures, is a major component of the overall capital costs of a solar thermal plant.
Weihl said Google is looking to cut the cost of making heliostats, the fields of mirrors that have to track the sun, by at least a factor of two, “ideally a factor of three or four.”
“Typically what we’re seeing is $2.50 to $4 a watt (for) capital cost,” Weihl said. “So a 250 megawatt installation would be $600 million to a $1 billion. It’s a lot of money.”
In his remarks Weihl also stated his view that it is critical – especially at this early stage – that the federal government fund basic research to encourage breakthrough ideas that can help transform our economy away from fossil fuel dependency.
He said, “I’d like to see $20 billion or $30 billion for 10 yrs (for the sector). That would be fabulous. It’s pretty clear what we have seen isn’t enough.”
Google is also Looking at Solar Powered Gas Turbines
The company is also researching the idea of using gas turbines driven by solar energy instead of natural gas as a means of further bringing down the final per kilowatt hour cost of solar thermal electricity down to grid parity.
“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.
Google has shown itself to be quite proactive and progressive on energy efficiency policies. For example its vast datacenters are some of the most energy efficient datacenters out there and they have been exploring ways to keep improving energy efficiency. Google also aggressively recycles its IT hardware. And has covered the roofs of its corporate campus with over 9,000 separate solar panels, amounting to a total of 1.6 megawatts of power, which is 30% of its peak power usage. Note the picture that is paired with this article is of the Google corporate campus and shows the solar panels arrayed on its roofs. If only all other companies of its heft were half as green as Google is showing itself to be the world would be in much better shape than it is today.
© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.