Special Report

Google's Rick Needham is Feeling Lucky About the Future of Sustainable Energy

Google's Rick Needham is Feeling Lucky About the Future of Sustainable Energy

Google's energy chief Rick Needham (left) has some lofty goals for the future of energy, including self-driving cars like the Google Car, shown here on a driver-less test drive (right). (From Getty Images (left) and Wikipedia (right).)

As the director of Google’s energy and sustainability team, Rick Needham leads the internet giant’s efforts to invest in renewable energy (they topped $1 billion in investments last year) and make the company’s offices more sustainable. He’s also an advisor to Google Ventures, the company’s venture fund that has invested in energy startups such as Silver Spring Networks, which develops smart grid technology, and Clean Power Finance, which provides funding for residential solar power. Needham spoke with Smithsonian.com to discuss his vision for the future of energy, how to make clean energy cheaper and why ride-sharing and self-driving cars make so much sense.

The following excerpts from our conversation have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you—and Google—see as the biggest energy challenges we’re currently facing, both specifically for the company, and as a planet?

Coming at it from the perspective of the company, some of the energy challenges are always around making do with less—trying to reduce the amount of resources that you use. That can be in terms of efficiency, and hence saving costs. But beyond that, the bigger challenge is making sure the sources of the energy are more sustainable. For us, that has meant sourcing renewable energy where we can for our operations, whether that’s putting solar panels on our rooftops or procuring power for our data centers. 

When you broaden it out to the nation and the world, those same challenges are there. One of the challenges is: how do you actually get that infrastructure in place to allow you to have economical renewable energy available to all users? That’s a challenge in innovation, in deployment, and certainly in financing and economics. Some recent reports have indicated that the amount of investment required for new energy infrastructure, through 2030, will be something to the tune of $11 trillion, with a ‘T.’ That’s an enormous amount of investment that needs to be made to meet growing energy demands and meet them in a sustainable way.

As we look at efficiency and renewable energy for ourselves, back at the company level, we continue to innovate so that we are operating as efficiently as possible. We’ve been fanatics about that for more than a decade, and have saved over a $1 billion as part of those efficiency initiatives. 

On the procurement of renewable energy, that’s a challenge we continue to face, in trying to find economical sources. We’re now procuring over 300 megawatts of wind power, but frankly, as we continue to grow, we’ll have to spend more time and effort. And not even in driving our renewables to a higher percentage, but merely keeping pace with growth.

So what do you (and Google) see as some of the most promising solutions to this challenge of producing more renewable power and making it less expensive? How do you prioritize smaller-scale improvements in efficiency and bolder, “moonshot” types of energy ideas?

The fact is that solutions will come from both of those kinds of efforts. In terms of making significant changes due to innovations—things like more efficient solar cells; larger-scale turbines for offshore wind; energy storage solutions, which might finally become economical and allow larger integration of renewables; or electric vehicles that drive down the cost curve, perhaps with a battery technology that would be markedly better in terms of economics and energy density—all those things would be great ‘moonshot’ changes. Any sort of big innovation that could drive down energy costs to a tenth or a hundredth of [what] the cost it is today, that would change the game. So it’s certainly worthwhile to pursue those.

But I ultimately don’t view it as one or the other. Actually deploying new innovations over time has enabled the solar industry, for instance, to drive down the cost of photovoltaic panels, which have dropped something like 24 percent just in the last year, and dropping over 80 percent in the last five years. That’s incredible—most industries wish they could claim such a curve. And as you continue to execute and drive the prices down, and there’ll just be more and more places where the economics make sense and they can be deployed without incentive.

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