Google sets its sights on energy market

Google headquarters in Mountain View

January 8, 2010 6:52:27 PM PST
Search engine giant and mobile phone marketer Google has set its sights on a more powerful future. It wants to be an electrical marketer.

That means it wants to buy and sell power on a large scale, similar to what utility companies do. Google filed an application last week with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington.

"I don't think we really know what they want to do," said Wall Street Journal reporter Rebecca Smith. "When I spoke with the company yesterday, their spokeswomanan said that this green team wasn't precisely sure what it wanted to do. What they do know is they've got an energy problem they want to solve."

Google turned down a request for an interview about its plans. However, multiple sources tell ABC7 News that it appears that Google has a two-fold reason to go into the power business. It wants a reliable and reasonably priced source of electricity for the large server farms it operates to support its global Internet search engine business, and it wants to expand its environmental agenda by reducing carbon emissions. Its FERC application indicates the company owns and operates no power generating facilities. However, Google has been promoting wind and solar power as sources of renewable energy, including the installation of large solar panel arrays at its Mountain View headquarters.

"You have reliability in case of outages, I presume. You have versatility. You can buy now, sell then, depending on what your needs are when you're producing excess energy," said Santa Clara University professor of electrical engineering Timothy Healing. "So I think it's a very attractive thing for them."

As part of its filing, Google said it plans to make "ancillary services available" to large-scale power operations, such as Cal ISO (the California Independent System Operator Corporation). Power system experts say that means Google would be free to sell power to the grid to help meet demand for electricity. It is a process known as "demand response." There would be environmental benefit from this. If Google can offer power to the grid, it would mean other suppliers would not have to burn fossil fuels at conventional power plants during peak demand periods. This will become important after the state set a goal of generating 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Most of the country's power marketers are large utilities. However, some large corporations also have received authority to become marketers, including Pleasanton-based Safeway, Inc. Safeway's Brian Dowling told ABC7 it got FERC authority in January 2006. It is buying power, not selling it back, as a way to save money on its electrical costs. The company has close to 600 buildings across California, about 500 of them grocery stores. It would not say how much savings has been generated by being a power marketer.

FERC is expected to take action on Google's request soon. Objections can be filed with FERC until Jan. 19. Google has set up a wholly-owned subsidiary to run its power program, called Google Energy LLC.


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