IT Leads ET, But Needs Public Policy and $$$

The TakeAway: Information technology leader Google advances energy technology development, but clean energy progress relies on smart policy and capital flows, too.

“Google it.”  Over the past decade, the term has gone viral, as the name of the information technology  (IT) giant morphed into a verb for the service it provides: Web searches.  Over the next decade, Google stands poised to alter reality yet again, shape-shifting into a clean energy technology (ET) provider as well.   That’s what Google’s departing Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives Dan Reicher told a UMass Boston audience last Wednesday—the same day he was named executive director of Stanford’s new $7 million Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, a collaboration its law and business schools.  Reicher’s message mirrored his move, focusing on the need to push policy enabling the transition to a green energy economy more broadly.  The US needs to do more to “invent the future of clean energy policy, technology, and finance,” he told the crowd of several hundred. “We’re not going to get to where we want to go without taking a more integrated view.  Otherwise, we’ll miss the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”

His appearance celebrated the launch of UMass Boston’s new Clean Energy Business and Professional Education Program, a joint venture between the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness (SERC) at the College of Management, and the Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences (EEOS) at the College of Science and Mathematics.

After an introduction by SERC Director David Levy, Reicher began with a quote from French critic and poet Paul Valéry: “The future is not where it used to be.”  For example, the pace of change in energy technology lags far behind the rapid rate of information technology advances.  “Google measures progress in months,” Reicher said, referring to IT – though he hopes it will increasingly apply to ET.  Energy efficiency is the place to start, he continued, because we need better tools to measure consumption and cost.  He then described Google’s contributions.

“When we go into the supermarkets, we don’t buy what we need and then wait for the bill at the end of the month,” he said.  An example of where ET meets IT: Google’s PowerMeter is a free home energy management tool to help people save energy and money by providing usage information that can be viewed from anywhere, online.  “This is an example where knowledge can be less power,” he quipped.  Proof of the market potential came that very day, as General Electric launched a home energy management business, to profit on this boom.

In transportation, Google has collected and publicly posted fleet performance data on its ReChargeIT program a test fleet of hybrid Prius vehicles retrofitted as plug ins.  “We achieved averages over 90 mpg,” Reicher said, showing the superior efficiency of plug-ins over conventional hybrid vehicles.  He’ believes the Chevy Volt will be a big hit (he’s driven it), and that there’s “nice competition” between it and Nissan’s LEAF.  In anticipation of wider use of plug-ins that call for staggered charging, Google’s also building  “smart charging dispatch” technologies, relying on “vehicle dispatch algorithms” that will distribute power demands on the electrical grid.  “You don’t want everyone coming home at 5 pm and plugging their car in, perhaps bringing down the grid,” he said.

As for renewable energies, “they can’t yet compete with coal” on cost, Reicher said, but opportunities abound.  Google’s investing heavily in wind power, and helping to build an Atlantic Wind Connection from New Jersey to Virginia that can connect 6,000MW of offshore wind turbines—the equivalent to 60% of the wind energy that was installed in the entire country last year, and enough to serve approximately 1.9 million households.

Meanwhile, at the macro level, last Thursday Google debuted its Google Earth Engine at the COP 16 Climate Summit in Cancun.  First announced at last year’s Copenhagen Summit, the Earth Engine aggregates world satellite imagery from the past 25 years.  Its online availability provides tools that scientists, independent researchers, and nations can use to track changes, map trends and quantify differences to the earth’s surface—such as globe-warming deforestation.

What’s needed to turbo-charge this momentum, beyond Google?  “Comprehensive energy legislation,” Reicher told the group, which he believes there’s a “decent prospect” of achieving.

Policy + technology + capital = a clean energy economy that generates sustainable prosperity for all.


Editor’s Note: For disclosure, writer Marcy Murninghan served as an advisor to David Levy and the UMass program for the past several months.

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