Google's Biggest Clean Energy Investments, and Some Small Ones, Too

Last Updated May 14, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Google (GOOG) has been on a clean-energy investing tear for the past several years. But what makes its approach to clean energy so intriguing is their purposeful disregard to profitability. Making money on most of their investments simply isn't part of the plan -- at least not in the short term.

Google has made a few for-profit clean energy ventures, such as its latest investment in two wind farms in North Dakota. The vast majority of its other clean energy efforts are funded through Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm. Which begs the question, is Google doing this out of the kindness of its heart or is there some deep, dark take -over-the-world goal in all of this?

It's neither. Google has made clean energy a priority because it makes sense for the future of the company and, it turns out, the world as well. Google is a huge user of energy. If it can be a part of an emerging technology that reduces energy use consider that a win-win scenario. It's even released its own Clean Energy 2030 proposal for how the U.S. can reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. And if Google stumbles upon something worthwhile it won't be an accident. The company has invested in a huge variety of clean energy technologies. And it doesn't appear to be stopping anytime soon.

Here's a look at Google's bigger -- and smaller -- clean energy investments in the past several years.

Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal Initiative: Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org launched in 2007 the RE<C initiative. The program was the starting point for Google's renewable energy investments. Under the RE<C banner, Google.org set out to make investments and grants to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that is cheaper than electricity from coal. Its goal is to find a source that can produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity -- enough to power a city the size of San Francisco -- within years, not decades, according to the mission outlined on Google's website. The RE<C initiative has awarded more than a $1 million in grants to Standford University, San Diego State University, Southern Methodist University's geothermal lab and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Plug-in electric cars and high-efficiency vehicles: Google.org created RechargeIT in 2007, a project to commercialize plug-in electric cars. In the past two years, Google has collected data from its RechargeIT cars, which are driven by employees in the company's free car-share program. As part of the RechargeIT program, Google has invested $2.75 million in Aptera Motors and ActaCell; and awarded $1.5 million to numerous research and public policy organizations, including the Brookings Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Solar: Google has invested $10 million in solar thermal start-ups like eSolar (founded by IdeaLab's Bill Gross) and Brightsource Energy and taken other steps a bit closer to home. Back in 2007, Google outfitted its Mountain View headquarters with solar panels. And we can't forget Google's new mirror prototype to be used in solar thermal plants.

Geothermal: Google.org has invested in several companies that are working on enhanced geothermal systems, a technology that produces heat and electricity by capturing energy from hot rock deep below the earth's surface. To date, Google.org has invested $4 million in Potter Drilling and $6.25 million in AltaRock Energy; and awarded a $489,521 grant to Southern Methodist University's geothermal lab.

Goats: Yup, goats. Google didn't so much as invest in goats as rent these natural lawn mowers as a creative, green way to tackle an overgrown piece of land at its headquarters. Google recently completed its second goat grazing season. Note: This is a short-term investment. Google rents, not owns, the goats.

Energy wholesaler: Federal regulators in February gave Google the OK to buy and sell bulk electricity just like your utility does. Google can now hedge its energy purchases. It also means the company could add more solar panels at its headquarters and sell off any extra capacity.

Wind: Google got into the wind biz several years ago with its $15 million investment in Makani, a part-wind, part-kite company that is developing ways to harness wind at high altitudes.

Home energy management/smart grid: Last year Google.org, launched a new service called PowerMeter, a free software tool that allows users to track energy use in homes and businesses. PowerMeter works by taking information from a smart meter installed in your home, tracking energy consumption and then sending the data to a customer's iGoogle homepage. Google Ventures, the company venture capital unit, also got into the smart grid business with an investment in Silver Spring Networks.

Photo of wind farm in North Dakota, logos and goats from Google.org See additional BNET Energy coverage of Google and its clean energy investments: