Seven years ago, Google tried to give renewable energy the Silicon Valley treatment, launching its RE<C project, aimed at making renewables a cheaper option than coal (as that acronym hints). But just four years later, ever-innovative Google packed it in, and now two engineers that worked on the project have concluded a post-mortem on RE<C over at IEEE Spectrum:
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed…Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.
Google looked at the problem, and saw what the modern environmental movement is apparently unwilling to acknowledge: current green technologies are not where we need them to be. Intermittency issues limit the ability of solar and wind energy to replace more consistent baseload power sources like natural gas, nuclear, and coal; moreover, costs are still an issue for renewables, as are issues of grid distribution.These two engineers advocate moving more research and development funds away from incremental improvements of existing technologies (i.e., slightly more efficient solar panels or wind turbines) and towards long-shot game-changers, using a 70-20-10 rubric that Google’s Eric Schmidt has advocated for his own company:
Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.
This sounds like a smarter approach than Germany’s, which has seen the subsidization of existing green technologies drastically raise electricity costs while the country’s dependence on coal has grown. Funding the research and development of new, potentially disruptive technologies is a much better plan than subsidizing inefficient technologies incapable of competing in a free market on their own.