At this week's annual shareholder's meeting, CEO Larry Page announced a new R&D team. This move suggests the search and software giant is ramping up its efforts to develop its own clean technology in conjunction with its partners to bring that energy to market at efficiency and scale.
Google's energy investments have always been complicated, spread between philanthropy and business, trying to be responsible to both shareholders and the planet. On one hand, Google wants to take the long view, identifying genuinely transformative possibilities in energy generation and transmission and securing its own high-energy-needs future. On the other hand, the company is looking for places where it can make an immediate technological impact and generate a solid return on its investment.
"We spend most of our time on search and advertising," Page said, but "to people outside the company, what's more interesting is 'what is the latest crazy thing that Google did?'"
"For us, those things are interesting, too, but it tends to be three people somewhere in the company," he noted. "We're not betting the farm on any of those things." In the case of renewable energy, Google's new hires seem to indicate it will be five people somewhere in the company, but their work is more serious than just engineers fiddling in a lab looking for "the latest crazy thing." In other words, it isn't like a driverless car that may or may not appear in the indefinite future, but a serious industry that Google's approaching with urgency.
The ultimate goal is eminently practical: "RE < C," Google's long-established project to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. The urgency comes in the addendum to that formula: "Within a few years."
To that end, Google has advertised five new positions in its Renewable Energy Engineering wing in Mountain View. One will be charged with managing Google's own energy usage to help keep the company cost-efficient and carbon-neutral. The other four spots are much more mechanical-engineering heavy than the typical Google hires. These are more interesting.
The three-person renewable energy engineering team will be responsible for both evaluating and recommending investments for the company and in developing new technologies. There's a head of renewable energy engineering to lead the team, an engineer specializing in early-stage technology and prototyping, and a mechanical engineer who heads up design and manufacturing.
The key phrase throughout the advertised positions is "utility-scale." The language of the mechanical engineer advertisement is especially revealing: "You will not be designing laboratory experiments; you will be designing useful systems that must deliver cost-effective results in the real world." This isn't pie-in-the-sky R&D. This is about products.