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Google is to Spider-Man as ... ?

Dennis Markatos-Soriano's take

In Spider-Man, Uncle Ben warns Peter Parker, "with great power comes
great responsibility."

Google is one of the most profitable companies in the world with a market
capitalization above $200 billion, and its founders and CEO are three of the richest
people in the world. Add to that their leading position in the growing online ad and
search markets, and they definitely qualify as having "great power." If Google
follows through on its latest announcement to bring the
price of renewables below that of coal then the spirit of Spider-Man will be alive and
well.

Google.org, their philanthropic arm, plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to
support research on solar thermal, wind, and other renewable technologies. And it
doesn't look like greenwash to me because this act is consistent with other recent
initiatives:

1. Google.org provided funding for a national student climate conference
that brought more than 5,000 young people to D.C. in early
November to strategize for clean energy revolutions on their campuses and push
Congress to legislate an 80% cut in emissions by 2050.

2. Google is committed to be climate neutral by the end of the year, joining HSBC,
Yahoo!, and others. Toward their goal, Google installed 1.6 MW of solar PV on their buildings this year, the
largest corporate installation to date.

Is PR involved? Sure. But these moves can help steer energy markets in the right
direction. Cheap, clean energy would be good for Google, and it's necessary for the
health of the Earth.

Coal is arguably the key driver of global warming, as its carbon dioxide emissions per
Btu of energy are 17% higher than those from oil and 44% higher than those from
natural gas. And there are many other pollutants that hurt our air and water quality
when we burn coal -- from the neurotoxin mercury to the sulfur dioxide that
produces acid rain. Coal's abundance makes it the cheapest fossil fuel to rely on into
the future, while the supply of oil is already at a plateau and natural gas may follow
within a decade or two. This cheapness makes coal the fuel of choice for rapidly
growing economies such as China, which
probably passed the U.S. as the largest
emitter nation of greenhouse gases this year. So, to prevent dangerous
climate change, renewables have to not only be affordable to the richer countries of
the world but also to developing countries.

Google picked a good time to focus on competing with coal. Its trading price is
breaking records globally at more than $85 per metric ton
and
UBS predicted this week that continued demand growth in Asia will lift prices to
further records above $100 in 2008 and 2009.

The twin challenges of skyrocketing energy prices and climate change can be tackled
if Google's fell swoop is successful. But this is no easy task. Researchers have been
developing wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuels for decades to achieve this goal,
and while progress has been made, coal is still vastly cheaper. But if anyone can
stand on the shoulders of millions of giants from the past and present, sort that
information out, and produce a product that billions of people can enjoy — it's hard to
argue that Google isn't a great candidate for the job.

I am hopeful that Google can help be like Spidey to achieve the sustainable energy
transition our world needs.

PS: (I don't own Google stock, though I wish I did.)

Heidi Siegelbaum responds:

I can't think of one critical thing to say about Google's news - absolutely nothing!

Google is also stemming the tide against coal subsidies and may tip the balance in
favor of renewable energy investments. On the policy side, lowering subsidies for
coal would help: according to a recent GAO report, less than a fifth of federal energy
R&D and tax expenditures go toward renewables, with the vast majority supporting
fossil fuels and nuclear.

Google's detractors seem to believe that corporations operate in some vacuum...
where have all the CSR flowers gone? There are more than 2,600 grantmaking (opens
PDF) corporate foundations in the U.S., and inventive ones like Google are
diversifying into new areas responsive to stakeholders' needs while wildly prospering.
When did a corporation's foundation have to strictly mimic its lines of business?

A recently released report (opens PDF) on Corporate Design (or really, redesign)
makes an interesting point that companies that have adaptive cultures and
effectively serve the needs of their stakeholders outperform their peers on every
count: growth in revenue, employment, stock price and net income. Google is
serving its stakeholders by making this impressive investment in renewable energy.
Who are a corporation's stakeholders? In this case, nearly every person
attached to the fingers using a Google search function, the communities in which
they operate their servers, Mountainview, CA, and all our children just to name a
few. This is a solid piece of cerebral cortex with a soul, not solid image work.

Jim Nicolow responds:

This is a huge deal. If Google can successfully produce one gigawatt of renewable
energy cheaper than coal it really will move the market. One gigawatt is equivalent
to the output of a new coal power plant. To an architect accustomed to looking at
renewable energy projects at the scale of individual buildings, measured in kilowatts
(1/1,000,000 of a gigawatt), this is a significant undertaking by Google and
worthy of praise.

Sure there's a PR angle to it. So what. With an informed populace, doing the right
thing should make for good public relations. There is most certainly a
business angle as well. The writing is on the wall. As Dennis points out, the price
for fossil fuel energy continues to rise, while the price for renewable energy
continues to fall. Those cost curves will cross. When a carbon tax or cap and trade
system inevitably comes to the U.S., those cost curves could cross overnight, making
renewable energy cheaper than coal from day one, as it should be.

But you don't need to be Google to support the transition to renewable energy. For
instance, our practice partnered with Carbonfund.org this year to offset 100% of our
electricity use and travel emissions.

Janne K. Flisrand responds:

Google's an old hand with green initiatives, and they aren't limited to giant PR
activities.

On the corporate side, Google walks the sustainability talk as only a huge company
can. They provide commuter buses to employees working in their Silicon Valley
headquarters — with nearly one quarter of their workforce using them. Google builds
its own energy-efficient servers. They installed the "largest single corporate solar
installation in the world"
to power their campus. Their campus food service serves
healthy, organic food, and the chef at Cafe 150, one of their cafeterias, is a
"passionate proponent of local, organic and sustainable food" using exclusively
ingredients from within 150 miles. The Google Store stocks eco-gear. The list goes
on
.

Google employees are encouraged to work on their own projects, which often turn
into public applications. A number of them have a green bent. There is Google
Transit
, which integrates the schedules and maps of different regional transit
services. There's also a green map mash-up for vacation planners.

This culture pervades the company. Reading more about it, now I want to work for
Google. Oh wait... maybe Google's HR has a hand in this...

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