A clean-energy economy will require lots of new hardware—sleeker wind turbines, more efficient solar panels, recharging stations for electric vehicles. It'll also require smarter software, to efficiently guide energy to where it's most needed. Always ambitious, Google hopes to be the architect of this software. Heading up its effort is Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Energy who now serves as director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google .org, the company's philanthropic arm. NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria spoke with him about the promise of the "smart grid" and more:
ve worked in both government and the private sector. To get to a clean-energy future, which do you think has the bigger role to play?
REICHER: I think it's both. There are often large barriers to moving new energy technology into the marketplace. It takes a combination of policy, technology and finance.
Google has made noise recently about the energy grid. Why is that such an important topic?
The electric grid is in many ways the backbone of our economy. Beginning in Thomas Edison's time, we've built a massive system to both generate and move electricity around the country, from nuclear-power plants and coal-fired generating facilities, across a huge infrastructure of wires and into people's homes. However ... in many ways [the grid] isn't up to the task that we're asking it to take on in the next couple of decades … If we're really going to take advantage of renewable energy, we have to build substantially more transmission capacity to move wind-generated electricity from the Dakotas to Chicago or solar-generated power from the Southwest to L.A.
a stumbling block?
We simply don't have enough power lines to move large quantities of green electricity from where it exists to where it's needed. So we've got to build more power lines to take advantage of wind and solar and geothermal energy.
But we also have to do it in a smarter way, right?
Right. We've also got to build a more intelligent grid. Electricity generally flows in one direction, from where it's generated to where it's used, but increasingly we want to be able to send electricity in multiple directions. For example, if we have a fleet of millions of plug-in vehicles, we've got to have a grid that not only knows how to fill up the batteries with electricity, but one where the same vehicles can send electricity back to the grid when it needs it. They can serve as a large storage capacity for the grid.
What are you doing at Google to improve things?
We launched a partnership with General Electric, for example, which brings together GE's energy hardware and Google's information software.
How would this help people?
One of the challenges that the electric grid has is how to provide power on a hot day in the summer: since everybody's using power at that point, we frequently see brownouts and sometimes blackouts. If the grid could be in constant communication with your air conditioner, we could avoid these kinds of problems, and you might get paid in exchange for allowing your air conditioner to be cycled on and off in relatively imperceptible ways. If we had real-time pricing of electricity—that is, pricing for people that reflects different costs throughout the day—you would have a choice: wash and dry your clothes at noon on a hot day, which will cost you x dollars, or wait six to eight hours when it will cost you a quarter of that. Over time, we are going to have smarter appliances and equipment in our homes. But all this is going to take increasing investment in the grid.
What will that investment get us?
For one, we need what are called smart meters. These are meters that record real-time information and can send it over the Internet to utilities, and then get it directly to consumers. You wouldn't expect to go into a grocery store and do your shopping and not know what the prices for anything were and only get a bill at the end of the month. We need to get to a point where people have a lot more sense about what we're paying for energy at any given point, and more choice about where it comes from and how green it is.
Sounds wonderful, but it also sounds like something involving a patchwork of overlapping governments and regulators. Is it likely that we could actually get to the point you
Yes. As I said, one of the critical needs is intelligent meters, and those are beginning to be installed. State utility regulators are encouraging utilities to purchase and install large numbers of them. We're not where countries like Italy are—they've installed smart meters across the entire country—but we're moving in that direction. I also think the economic attractiveness of being able to better monitor and control your own energy use, whether you're a homeowner or a factory operator, is going to motivate people, especially in an era of higher energy prices.
Google uses enormous amounts of energy in its server farms. Wouldn
t part of the new energy future require you to do better on that front?
Absolutely. The energy work we're doing will also help Google to green up its own operations. It turns out that responding to millions of Google searches uses a fair amount of electricity. We've made some good progress in making those facilities more efficient, and we are looking for greener sources of electricity.
If you are asked to be secretary of energy in the Obama administration, what would be the first thing you
I think one of the things we clearly need to do is put a price on carbon emissions to control greenhouse gases. That would send the right price signals to the economy and drive the trillions of dollars of investment that will have to be made both to avert the climate crisis and to rebuild our economy.