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NASA and Google Team Up for Zero-Emissions Flight Contest

Google’s made all kinds of headlines with its investments in clean energy recently: $280 million for a California residential solar company, $55 million for a wind project in Kern County, more than $10 million for geothermal R&D projects, and $168 million for a massive solar farm in the California desert, just to name a few.

A new move by the company seeks to address another kind of energy challenge: airplane fuel. The company has teamed up with NASA to sponsor the Green Flight Challenge, a competition to develop emissions-free aircraft.

The challenge?  Build a plane that can fly at least 100 miles per hour and achieve the equivalent energy efficiency of 200 miles per gallon of fuel on a 200-mile flight. Continue reading

Google Invests Millions in Residential Solar

SolarCity infusion is Google’s largest yet

(Photo: Craig Miller)

Google is giving a boost to the solar industry today – but not to those large solar farms in the California desert. Nope, the company’s largest clean energy investment to date is going to home solar.

Five years ago, SolarCity was a small, Bay Area start-up. Today, it’s getting a $280 million-dollar investment from one of the most influential players in the game.

“We are very excited,” says Lyndon Rive,  CEO of SolarCity. “It’s a big vote of confidence in SolarCity as well as hopefully a big vote of confidence to the entire market.” Continue reading

Google Writing More Checks for Renewable Energy

Another major renewable energy project is getting a cash infusion from Google.

Wind turbines clustered on hilltops near Tehachapi. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

This time it’s Terra-Gen’s multi-phase wind project in Kern County, known as the Alta Wind Energy Center.

Google’s clean-tech investment arm will reportedly invest $55 million in the project, being built near Tehachapi.

Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy “czar,” told me in an interview last year that the company would support clean energy technologies with two main attributes; global scalability and the potential to become cost-competitive with coal power. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Weihl said he thought Google’s “culture of innovation” made it a good fit with renewable energy development.

Google has now made substantial investments in wind, solar and geothermal projects, in and around California, as well as bankrolling an ambitious scheme to build a connective spine connecting offshore wind projects along the Atlantic coast.

New Google Tool Helps Monitor World’s Forests

Map of Mexico created with Google Earth Engine, by scientist Matthew Hansen and CONAFOR. Google says this is the finest-scale forest cover map produced of Mexico to date.

This week in Cancun, in a jungle-themed conference room with green lighting and an audio track of rain forest sounds, Google launched a new technology platform designed to help scientists — and ultimately developing countries — monitor deforestation. Google Earth Engine combines LandSat satellite imagery from the last 25 years (much of which was not previously available online) with analytical tools provided by scientists, which will allow users to make fine-scale maps.

Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute at Stanford is one of Google’s partners in the project. His lab provided some of the algorithms built into the Earth Engine that will allow users to analyze the satellite data online.

“There have been two major bottlenecks in helping people to map and keep track of deforestation and degradation: getting access to the satellite data and making it user-friendly,” said Asner. Continue reading

Offshore Wind’s Google Boost

Google makes a billion-dollar bet on offshore wind–but not on this coast.

When Google announced that it was taking a nearly 40% stake in a $5 billion underwater transmission line to serve offshore wind farms that haven’t been built, nobody even seemed to flinch. Such is the effect of having the Google imprimatur on renewable energy projects.

The Nysted wind farm, off the coast of Denmark. The US presently has no offshore wind generation.

According to reports, the cable would run for 350 miles, about 20 miles off the Atlantic coast, connecting yet-to-be-built wind energy turbines to the mainland and to each other. It would not connect the only offshore wind farm to so far win approval from the federal Department of the Interior, the long-contested Cape Wind project off Massachusetts. Continue reading

Clean Energy from Below

UPDATED with interactive map

Hear my radio feature on geothermal energy and the rest of a five-part collaboration on renewable energy between NPR and KQED, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

It may be a distant second to California now, but Nevada is making a run to become the nation’s largest producer of geothermal energy.

A conventional geothermal power plant at The Geysers complex in Lake County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

California still produces an estimated 80% of the nation’s geothermal power (used to produce electricity*), with more than 40 plants online. But according to a summary from the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) this summer:

“Nevada could become the leading geothermal energy producer in the coming years if growth and production trends continue on their current trajectories. Nevada’s 86 planned or developing geothermal power plants have the potential add up to 3,686.4 Megawatts of geothermal power to Nevada’s energy portfolio, power for 2.6 million homes – enough to meet the electricity needs of 100% of the homes in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.”

GEA describes 14 Nevada projects as being “in latter stages of development.” Meanwhile, says the group’s executive director, Karl Gawell, development in California is slowing down. “Everything’s relative,” Gawell told me in a phone interview. “Projects are moving forward in California, they just take longer.” Continue reading

Nichols: No Solo Cap-and-Trade

Cap-and-Trade is a lonely business these days. But according to the state’s top regulator in charge of implementing it, California won’t go it alone.

Air Board Chair Mary Nichols, flanked by Google Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl (left) and PG&E Sr. VP Tom Bottorff, at a panel sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Mary Nichols, who chairs the state’s Air Resources Board, made the remark in a Silicon Valley panel discussion today. The ostensible topic of the event was renewable energy but it turned into a pep rally against Proposition 23, the statewide ballot measure designed to halt California’s comprehensive climate law, AB 32. Nichols was joined on the panel by executives from Google, PG&E and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, all of whom voiced strong opposition to Prop 23.

When asked about the cap-and-trade provisions of AB 32, Nichols said: “We won’t launch this program without partners to trade with. It doesn’t make sense for an economy even as big as California, to try to do this all by ourselves.” The comment came days after congressional leaders threw in the towel for the summer, on a federal bill to address climate change and energy security. “To get the kind of leverage that you really need to make this program succeed, the US has got to step in,” said Nichols.

California is part of a nascent regional trading pact known as the Western Climate Initiative. But among the seven US states and four Canadian provinces signed on to the WCI, only California, New Mexico and Quebec are prepared to move forward with a working carbon trading market. Others still lack enabling legislation, and Arizona has overtly pulled out of the carbon trading plan, raising the question of how many “partners” California will have, even with WCI in the mix.

“I don’t expect to be faced with this dilemma,” Nichols told me after today’s event, “but if the worst were to happen and none of these states were able to move forward with their own programs, I think we would think long and hard about whether we would actually start enforcing the program, unless and until we were really confident that our  state had the ability to do it in a way that would not put us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Proponents of Prop 23 contend that full implementation of AB 32 will give other states and nations a competitive edge over California, resulting in “leakage” of jobs and businesses to regions with fewer regulations.

The panel, entitled “Electric Bills and Oil Spills: Will California Continue To Be a Clean Energy Leader?” was held on the Google corporate campus in Mountain View.