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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What are the some of the challenges and failures that have helped teach Google lessons about energy and guide its vision for the future?

One lesson that was probably learned not just here, but throughout the industry, was that innovation in electricity generation is very different than innovation in software. There are hard physical assets that need to be developed and refined, and it requires lots of capital to get even to initial prototypes, which then need to be proven. At the end of the day, the power innovation products are providing a commodity—electricity—so those will take a long time and a lot of capital to prove themselves out. There are benefits, and if we had a system that was set up in a way to capture those benefits, with respect to sustainability, that could make the progress faster and easier. But right now, there are many places where the system isn’t yet set up to take advantage of that; i.e. carbon pricing for power—it doesn’t come into play in many places.

The other thing we’ve learned is related to one of our projects, which was focused on providing people access to their own energy usage information. We’re encouraged to see is that this concept has actually grown, and there’s an ecosystem being built around providing this information. And we look forward to a day of not just providing people with information on their own use, but more intelligently providing information on ways it can be improved, ways they can save money, save electricity, shift to renewables. Doing that in a way that doesn’t burden people, but thinks about it intelligently and is a smart partner in helping people make those decisions. It’s analogous to things we have in Google called Google Now, where an alert pops up that you should leave the office early because traffic is heavy. What if we had things like that related to energy and energy use? The lesson learned here is that it’s not just a matter of giving people information on their energy use, but something more than that—products and services that really provide a benefit.

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