Google Lights the Way to Corporate Solar The alternative energy rush has begun
in earnest as the icon of high technology business goes green.
By: John Shepler
the last few years, there has been a growing rumble that is the
juggernaut of alternative energy on its way. The whiplash of
oil price speculation, a return to rising electricity prices,
and a realization that the concepts of "peak oil" and
"global warming" are based on real science have rattled
our sense of reality. But unlike the energy shocker of mid-70's,
this time we've got the tools to break our unhealthy addiction
to fossil fuels and eventually to rid ourselves of dangerous
and polluting energy sources. Perhaps the opening shot in the
coming "alternative energy rush" is Google's commitment
to green the Googleplex with solar photovoltaic panels.
What Google is doing is the leading edge of something they
refer to as "corporate solar." It's an expansion of
the residential solar that places photovoltaic panels on the
peaked roofs of houses with southern exposures. Those cells generate
typically 2.5 to 5 KW of DC that is electronically inverted to
utility grade alternating current and fed back to the grid through
a two-way electric meter. When the sun shines brightly, the power
meter runs slower and slower and then reverses to indicate that
the home is a net generator of power. The value of the power
that back feeds the grid is subtracted from the value of the
power that the house draws from the grid at night and on cloudy
can get a lighthearted tour of this serious technology from Ed
Begley, Jr. on his new TV series "Living With Ed".
Ed's been an environmental activist for decades, typical of the
early adopters for solar energy. Up until recently, "green"
power has been more of a rallying cry and personal commitment
than a mainstream real estate investment. That's pretty much
changed now. The cost of solar panels, the frames of photovoltaic
cells that convert inbound photons to flowing electrons, has
steadily dropped. Technology advances have made the solar conversion
process more efficient and created new types of panels, some
of which resemble common asphalt shingles. The cost of the inverter
electronics that converts solar cell DC to power line AC has
also come down. Combine these improvements with government subsidies
of up to 50% and laws mandating that electrical utilities buy
power from individual producers at the same rate they sell it,
and you've got systems that pay for themselves before they become
Now solar power is an investment, not an expense. This couldn't
have come at a better time. The information society is a power
hog, perhaps even worse than the industrial revolution. Network
operations centers are getting to the point where they can suck
electricity faster than a steel mill. It's actually a double
hit. Electric power runs the CPUs, which heat up and need more
electric power to run air conditioners to get rid of the heat.
In the steel mill everybody sweats. In the server room, the equipment
and personnel need to keep cool or they'll both go nuts. The
Mountain View Googleplex pulls just under 5 Megawatts at peak
So where do new Megawatts come from to power the expansion
of technology industries? Traditionally, it's nuclear with glow
in the dark for generations ramifications or coal with terraform
the Earth to something like Venus ramifications.They both suck,
but what else can you do? Burn natural gas? That pumps out CO2
just like coal. Burn Oil? Oh, please. That's CO2 and supply limitations
combined. Hydro? We've pretty much dammed everything that still
That leaves us with solar and wind as renewable and freebie
energy sources. The energy is free. The equipment to capture
it requires a strategic investment. Google is plastering solar
cells over all their rooftops and building parking lot shelters
with more solar cells on the roofs. All of that will give them
1.6 Megawatts or 30% of their power requirement.
As you expect, solar is a daytime energy source. It fizzles
out when the sun sets. So at noon you may be offsetting a huge
portion of your energy need, but at night you draw 100% off the
grid. That's actually advantageous, because power demand is highest
during the day when that beating sun makes air conditioners run
longer and most people are in their offices with computers and
lights on. True energy independence will require both solar and
wind, plus advanced nuclear, biofuels and natural gas fired peaker
plants. It will also require new building designs to get lighting
as well as power from the sun.
That's for now. Google's shot across the bow of the old energy
industry will hopefully get other companies interested in coating
the flat and otherwise unencumbered roofs of their offices, factories
and warehouses with photovoltaic panels. Residential construction
can do likewise, creating a huge resource of distributed power
that is more reliable and more secure that putting all the generators
in one spot and running transmission lines across the countryside.
A corporate stampede to "be just like Google" could
change our strategic energy situation almost overnight. It happened
with downsizing, it happened with quality, it happened with outsourcing...
and it can happen with solar.
Magazines and Books of Interest:
Home PowerMagazine is the perfect introduction
to alternative energy for the individual. See how practical it
is for you to join the alternative energy revolution on a personal
Also visit these related
Solar is Coming - From the Google Blog comes Google's announcement
of their intent to go solar in Mountain View, California.
Solar Energy Basics - From the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Learn the technologies from this official government site.