The Googleplex Goes Solar

October 14, 2006 0

Google Inc. is converting its renowned headquarters to run partly on solar power, hoping to set an example for corporate America.
Google is planning to deploy a solar electricity system that will have a capacity of 1.6 megawatts at its famed million square foot headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. It will be the largest such installation on a corporate campus in the United States and one of the largest in the world, the company said.

Google believes the sun eventually can deliver as much as 30 percent of the power at its 1-million-square-foot campus in Mountain View – a suburb about 35 miles south of San Francisco.

The ambitious project will require installing more than 9,000 solar panels — on a high-tech Mecca nicknamed the "Googleplex," which will produce enough electricity to power 1,000 homes — is expected to be complete by spring. After leasing the offices for several years, Google bought the campus for $319 million earlier this year.

"This is the largest customer-owned solar electric system at a corporate site," said Noah Kaye, director of public affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C.

A Google executive said the company will rely on solar power to supply nearly a third of the electricity consumed by office workers at its roughly one-million-square-foot headquarters. This excludes power consumed by data centers that power many of Google’s Web services worldwide, he said.

"We are going to be producing roughly 30 percent of the power that we use," David Radcliffe, vice president of real estate at Google, told Reuters in an interview. "This is for our corporate-office people center," he said.

Radcliffe declined to comment on the cost of the project or whether the solar generation equipment might pay for itself over time. "We wanted to dispel the myth that you cannot be both Green and profitable," he said.

Rapid Payback
While he did not comment on Google’s specific investment, Steve Chadima, chief marketing officer for EI Solutions, told the E-Commerce Times that typically, a project of this size and scope can be expected to pay for itself within five to eight years. "After that, producing electricity is free for the next 22 years," he noted. The company offers a guarantee on the system for at least 25 years.

Chadima considered state and federal tax credits, as well as California utility subsidies to companies, in making his calculation.

The job is being handled by Pasadena-based EI Solutions, a subsidiary of Energy Innovations, part of a high-tech incubator run by entrepreneur Bill Gross, whose idea to link ads to search engine requests during the 1990 inspired the business model that generates most of Google’s profits, will build the system, which will have enough capacity to power 1,000 homes in California.

Installation of the panels — numbering more than 9,000 — will begin in November. They will be placed on the roofs of the four main buildings of the Googleplex and on two additional buildings across the street, as well as in a few parking lots, according to a blog posting by Robyn Beavers, corporate environmental programs manager at Google.

Industry Growth
Google would not disclose the project’s cost, but it would not strain a company with nearly $10 billion in cash.
The anticipated savings from future energy bills should enable Google to recoup the solar project’s costs in five to 10 years, estimated Radcliffe. “Energy costs are a major concern at Google, which already consumes a tremendous amount of power to run the computer farms that keep its search engine humming.”

Most adopters of this technology are not motivated primarily by financial savings, though, Chadima pointed out. "Firms that adopt this technology tend to be environmental leaders in their particular industries," he said. "They want to make a statement."

“We hope corporate America is paying attention. We want to see a lot of copycats” of this project, Radcliffe said.

However, Chadima believes that within five years, firms will be driven as much by financial incentives as by environmental concerns when deploying the technology. "It is rapidly moving to a place where firms will be deploying it in order to remain competitive on costs," he observed.

While the move marks a major demonstration of support for alternative energy, the project may only make only a small dent in the overall amount of energy consumed by Google. A utility industry rule of thumb is that data centers consume 10 times more electricity than buildings used to house office workers.

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin also are big supporters of alternative energy. The billionaires began driving hybrid cars shortly after they hit the mass market. Page also is among the investors in Tesla Motors Inc., a Silicon Valley startup developing a sports car that runs on electricity.

Earlier this year, Google rival Microsoft got the jump on Google with a 2,288-panel solar system at its research site in Mountain View that is expected to produce 480 kilowatts at peak capacity, the first large-scale use of solar power at any Microsoft office worldwide.

Silicon Valley’s Cypress Semiconductor, majority owner of solar cell maker SunPower Corp., has a 336-kilowatt system generating more than 10 percent of its corporate-office electricity needs, spokesman Matt Beevers said.

The consulting arm of Energy Innovations Inc., a company supported by venture backer Idealabs, has built 12 large-scale solar projects across California and is managing construction of the Google project.

Sharp Electronics is supplying 9,212 solar panels for the Google project. Sharp Corp., parent of the solar panel maker, has a 5.2 megawatt solar generation system, the world’s largest corporate solar system, at a Kameyama, Japan factory.

The world’s largest dedicated solar-powered generation station is a 12-megawatt facility in Arnstein, Germany, near Frankfurt. The top U.S. dedicated solar facility generates 4.6 megawatts and sits in the Arizona desert near Tucson, according to a solar generation database compiled by PVResources.com (http://www.pvresources.com/en/top50pv.php).

On-site electricity will help Google offset the price of power fueled by natural gas and delivered through the local grid by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp. and Google’s main energy provider.

It is unclear, though, what Google’s total savings would be from this project. The electricity equivalent of a thousand homes may seem huge — but it will not be enough to power even half of the Googleplex, according to Beavers’ blog. The electricity generated from the installation will offset approximately 30 percent of Google’s peak electricity consumption in those buildings, she wrote.

"The installation of clean and renewable power represents a first step in reducing our environmental impact as a company. We believe that improving our environmental practices is not only our responsibility as a corporate citizen, but good business planning," Beavers wrote.

One interesting aspect of Google’s project is that in addition to doing the right thing for the environment and coming up with a reasonable cost of energy, it is also locking in its energy prices for the next 25 years," Adam Parker, president of Conservation Services Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

Google’s motives appear to stem both from the desire to do good and the desire to save money — at least down the road.