Google's Clean Energy Report Reveals Innovations And Policy Could Help Economic Goals

06/29/2011 04:31 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

Google made two major announcements yesterday. One was about a new Google social network, Google +, expected to compete with the likes of Facebook. The other announcement was that saving the world could also save us a lot of money. The latter revelation somehow fell unnoticed amid debate over the plus and minuses of Google +, but it is significant nonetheless.

Google’s report, “The Impact of Clean Energy Innovation,” aimed to measure the potential effects of clean energy on both the energy landscape and the U.S. economy.

The analysis was conducted by assuming that there were “aggressive hypothetical cost breakthroughs (BT) in clean power generation, grid-storage, electric vehicle, and natural gas technologies and compares them to Business as Usual (BAU) scenarios modeled to 2030 and 2050.”

They found that, when compared to BAU in 2030, aggressive energy innovation alone could grow the U.S. economy by over $155 billion in GDP/year, create over 1.1 million new net jobs, and save U.S. consumers $942/household/year. Not to mention the environmental and security benefits – this model could reduce U.S. oil consumption by over 1.1 billion barrels/year and cut U.S. total greenhouse gas emissions by 13%.

In other words, aggressive clean energy innovation would not only help the environment, but also boost U.S. economic and security goals.

Additional scenarios added the “Clean Policy” path, where there were also federal incentives and mandates. With this path, the U.S. economy could grow by over $244 billion in GDP/year, and generate over 1.9 million jobs. According to The New York Times, without a shift in government policy, the study found that improvements in energy storage could simply lead to a greater use of coal, with Google’s green energy czar Bill Weihl stating, “Basically it’ll allow you to run the cheapest thing you’ve got, more.”

The report also found that speed is key. Delaying innovation by just five years could result in $2.3-3.2 trillion in unrealized GDP and up to 1.4 million net unrealized jobs.

Google has made major efforts in the past to encourage clean energy. Google Earth offered climate change videos and trainings during COP 16. Reuters notes that earlier this month, Google announced it would help finance a $280 million residential solar power project, and the company is also part of a group backing a $5 billion transmission line to transport electricity from wind farms.

There are certain controversial factors in Google's most recent report that should be noted, such as the inclusion of new nuclear energy and natural gas. According to the report, “In this study, nuclear refers to any fission or fusion process capable of achieving breakthrough cost/performance levels.” While it was a component included as a “clean power breakthrough,” some environmental advocates would argue that nuclear energy, even though carbon-free, isn't "clean" for the environment, citing Japan’s nuclear crisis as a recent example.

While echoing the Obama administration's definition of clean energy, Google's inclusion of natural gas is highly controversial as well. Google writes, “Natural Gas has undergone a revolution in just the last few years driven by the advent of shale technology. What if innovation in gas technology continues, bringing additional low-cost resources online?” But natural gas has created controversy in recent years, particularly with the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the health effects of which are currently being studied. While the Google report found that cheap natural gas could reduce greenhouse gas emissions when compared to coal in the short term, the report also found that in the long term, it slows the deployment of clean energy sources.

Google also acknowledges the challenges of actually achieving their ideal scenarios, writing on their blog, “We haven’t developed the roadmap, and getting there will take the right mix of policies, sustained investment in technological innovation by public and private institutions and mobilization of the private sector’s entrepreneurial energies.”

As Matt Hourihan of The Energy Collective writes, "Google makes some fairly substantial assumptions about energy costs. Some of these are quite aggressive indeed. For example, under Google’s assumptions, onshore wind costs decline by more than 50 percent by 2050 –- twice as much as the IEA has predicted." But he is quick to add that "by establishing technology costs as the fundamental driver of success or failure, it’s pushing the right conversation."

Despite the challenges and controversial factors, their findings remain remarkable.

As the magazine “Death + Taxes” writes, “Sure, it behooves the company to try to stay competitive with Facebook. But for the sake of future life on earth… the company would do well to focus its news releases on areas where its formidable smarts can really make a difference.”

Which will matter more to our great-grandchildren -- social networking or global warming?

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