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).)

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Some might argue, ‘why deploy what you have today when you know the technology of tomorrow will be that much more efficient?’ Well, if you wait forever, you don’t get the experience or volume or efficiency improvements that you can have today.

Why is Google, and Google Ventures, interested in the energy space in the first place? How has the company’s involvement in the area evolved over time?

For Google, energy and electricity is critical to our business. It’s the thing that makes Google happen at large scale. We deliver over 100 billion answers to searches every month, and serve up over 6 billion hours of video, and we have over a billion users. To deliver those millisecond-timed answers and streaming video takes a pretty sophisticated infrastructure. 

So we’ve asked what we can do to help provide those products and services in the most sustainable way. One is [to] operate efficiently, and another is to use renewable sources of power. We’ve gone through a bunch of potential pathways to do that, whether it’s signing power-purchase agreements, taking initiatives to actually procure power and then strip off the renewable energy credits and sell it back into the market, or directly working with utilities to provide that power to us. More recently, we’ve even worked with utilities to establish renewable energy tariffs, which would allow us to procure renewable energy through a utility.

With respect to Google Ventures, some of the investments they’ve made have been in this space, but they typically look at investments as ‘let’s find the best business opportunities to pursue with the best teams.’ Those don’t always happen to be in energy. But still, it’s tough to ignore energy, being arguably the largest industry in the world. There are certainly opportunities in that space, whether it’s a more efficient conversion of power [or] using assets more efficiently, like ride-sharing, or fuels that can be made in almost a carbon-negative way, that can be cost-effective and sustainable.

In terms of ride-sharing in particular, Google Ventures has recently invested in Sidecar and Uber. How does ride-sharing fit into your vision for energy and transportation in the future?

If you sit back and think about how people use cars today, it really doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. You have this vehicle, it’s several tons of metal and plastic, and it’s running down the road and just delivering one person from point A to point B, and then it sits there. Cars are idle almost all the time, and they’re a large expense, and an asset that’s frankly under-utilized. It causes our infrastructure (i.e. roads) to be, at times, very heavily utilized, and yet there are times when they’re empty.

Ride-sharing is a potential way to address some of that. Even more interesting, perhaps, is intelligently using vehicles that can drive you around and then go do something useful with their lives other than sitting on a piece of concrete, taking up space. So the potential for self-driving vehicles, perhaps, to be a part of an ecosystem that maximizes the utilization of both the car and the driving infrastructure, will also help to solve some of the big problems in our car-focused society. That could be in terms of accidents—as people play with their devices more and more—and just the ability of people to be productive with their time as they move from point A to point B.

How did you personally get involved in energy? What draws you to the field and makes you passionate about it?

My original entry into energy was as a submarine officer—I got to run what was basically a nuclear plant underwater. Then, I got involved in looking at innovations in energy, and methods of providing power in more sustainable ways. As part of a previous job, I looked at using multiple fuels, using an external combustion engine, applications of technologies like that. What gets me passionate is that it’s an area where, as a company, we can work on it and it can really benefit us, really set us up for the long-term to be successful.

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