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Google wants to make renewable power cheaper than coal

Plans to spend several thousandths of ad revenue

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Google.org, "the philanthropic arm of Google", plans to sink some of the company's billions in ad fees into advancing renewable energy technology. The aim is to make cleanly-generated electricity cheaper than that derived from burning coal.

In classic Googley style, the new plan is called RE<C. Google says it will plough in "tens of millions" in 2008.

"Cheap renewable energy is not only critical for the environment but also vital for economic development in many places where there is limited affordable energy of any kind," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.

Google's founders believe the firm's experience in data centres and bot-vs-bot advertising mean this relatively small investment will nonetheless overturn the established energy economy in short order.

"We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centres," said Larry Page, Brin's partner.

"We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal... Our goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal. We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades."

The technologies favoured by the online ad billionaires are those with few or no visible downsides except cost. The ploy most favoured is solar thermal, in which the sun's rays are used to produce heat and generate power using conventional turbines, rather than being turned straight to electricity in expensive solar cells.

Solar thermal is not a new idea - substantial plants have been operating in California since the 1980s, though their original developer went bankrupt in 1991 - but there are various solar thermal ideas that haven't been tried on a large scale. Google also plans to sink cash into Geothermal efforts, taking power ultimately from the Earth's hot core.

"Usual investment criteria may not deliver the super low-cost, clean, renewable energy soon enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change," said Dr Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google's philanthropic arm.

"If we meet this goal ...we expect this would be a good business for us as well," said Page. ®

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