by Stephen Lacey

It’s been 10 years since Google shifted some of its attention from bits and bytes toward the world of therms and electrons. How's it going?

It started with a wide-ranging investment and R&D initiative, called RE<C, designed to make renewables cheaper than coal. That initiative was abandoned in 2011 after engineers realized they were tackling the wrong problems.

Today, new renewables are far more competitive than coal. But the economic shift didn't play out in the way Google imagined.

In the decade since, Google has since dabbled in pretty much everything -- power electronics, home energy analytics, smart thermostats, residential geothermal, flying wind, solar lead generation, autonomous cars, and direct corporate procurement.  

What can we conclude about the company's track record? And at a time of uncertainty in both venture capital and government support, is Google the best vessel for cleantech R&D?

In this week's episode of The Interchange, we debate Google's place in energy.

On one side, Stephen argues that Google hasn't lived up to its long-hyped claims about transforming the energy sector.

On the other side, Shayle argues that Google deserves credit for taking such a diverse approach to low-carbon technology development.

We'll also bring on some guests for more context about where energy fits into the X Moonshot Factory. We talk with Mark Bergen, a Bloomberg journalist covering Google, who recently wrote about struggles of Makani Wind under the X Moonshot Factory. And we interview Kathy Hannun, the CEO of geothermal startup Dandelion, about how X deploys resources to energy R&D.

Google's history in energy is extensive. Here's a condensed timeline.

  • In 2006, Google builds a 1.6-megawatt solar system at the Mountain View campus.
  • In 2007, Google launches the RE<C initiative. It invests in geothermal companies AltaRock and Potter Drilling, as well as CSP companies eSolar and BrightSource.
  • In 2009, Google becomes a major tax equity provider for renewables, ramping up massively in wind, and later, solar. It is now the biggest corporate purchaser, with a plan to get 100 percent of its energy from renewables through contacted electrons.
  • In 2010, Google secretly creates X. Engineers at the so-called "moonshot factory" get serious about autonomous vehicles.
  • In 2011, Google ditches RE<C, realizing CSP and enhanced geothermal are extremely challenging. They maintain an equity stake in BrightSource’s Ivanpah CSP project. Engineers later say that conventional renewables aren’t enough to combat climate change.
  • That same year, 2011, Google kills off its home energy suite, PowerMeter. That’s when most tech providers start re-evaluating their approach to the home energy management market.
  • In 2013, Google acquires the flying wind company Makani. 
  • In 2014, Google makes another smart-home play by acquiring Nest for $3.2 billion. Nest has since struggled to define itself under the company, and it’s not clear where the smart-device maker is headed.
  • Today at X (now under the Alphabet umbrella), engineers continue to pursue flying wind, thermal storage, power electronics and even hybrid hydro-solar. But these efforts have either been abandoned, are facing hiccups, or are still too nascent to judge.

After everything, Google's impact has arguably been greatest in conventional wind and solar procurement -- the very technologies that engineers at RE<C once criticized as not enough to address climate change.

This brings us to some of the bigger questions that we try to answer in the podcast.

What can we conclude thus far about Google’s track record?

Does Google's "10x" approach to innovation mean we should judge the company by a different standard? Are there limitations to applying that philosophy to energy?

Where are Google's greatest strengths, and how can it apply them to energy?

Shayle also proposes a plan: Should Google simply buy a utility?

We still haven't witnessed any major energy breakthroughs at the company -- at least compared to the expectations it set back in 2007. But that doesn't mean Google failed. It may simply tell us how difficult it is to scale new energy technologies and business models.

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