Renewable energy developers agree: The lack of clear, long-term signals from policymakers stalls investments in the clean energy space. As the new kid on the block, and not an energy company, Google is plowing ahead.

While Congress seems absent on energy policy this year – except for the predictable hearings on high gasoline prices – clean energy companies are looking for a signal that investments will pay off once various credits and subsidies expire at the end of this year and next.

The message came through at a press conference at the American Wind Energy Association conference in Anaheim.

But along with the policy imperative, Google said there’s a business case to be made. “We believe in a clean energy future so we’re trying to do what we can to help enable that, but we also believe very strongly that all the things we are doing make good business sense,” said Rick Needham, director of green business operations and strategy at Google.

The company has invested $400 million in large scale renewable energy projects. “Also, these investments provide strong financial returns, and are a way to diversify our cash holdings with good returns given those risks,” Needham added.

And as a large energy consumer, Google has procured two 20-year long-term power purchase agreements for 250 megawatts of wind providing clean energy for its data centers.

But that only goes so far, as uncertain policy and recent history illustrate.

Ned Hall, AES executive vice president and AES Wind Generation president, said: “We have a lot of examples in our industry as to what hasn’t worked out well for us. In the late 90s we built 35,0000 megawatts of natural gas generation in our rush to excitement to what was viewed as a disruptive technology. That drove natural gas prices to $13. And that ended badly for a lot of businesses.”

The current mania over shale gas and the lack of a commitment to clean energy affects markets now.

Hall is the incoming chairman of AWEA, so he’s clearly in the space for the long haul, too.  But he’s seen this movie before, too.

“The disruptive nature of shale gas has changed the map again and there’s a rush back to gas. If we’re always chasing what we view as the current least-cost opportunity, we won’t get the diversity that I think we would benefit from,” Hall said.

He spoke approvingly of the market signals for renewables outside of the U.S.: “AES does business in 28 countries. Most of our time and effort on wind development is focused outside the U.S. because we don’t see what exists today as a motivator to come and put in the time and effort.”

Does Google want to lead by example? “We would welcome and encourage other companies that may not be investing or offtaking (procuring) to do something that makes business sense for them to drive the industry forward,” Needham said.

The uncertain regulatory environment is taking its toll. But some of that pain is being eased by the likes of Google and AES. 

Bill Opalka is editor of RenewablesBiz Daily