When Google speaks - or acts - it commands attention across the American economy. What the iconic company thinks about the future of energy is important to utilities, energy companies, diverse energy users and policymakers. EnergyBiz recently interviewed Rick Needham, director of energy and sustainability at Google. His comments, edited for style and length, follow.

ENERGYBIZ What is Google focused on in the area of energy initiatives?

NEEDHAM We're focused on making our own operations as sustainable as possible. We are also supporting programs or efforts that can scale. Through our energy efforts, we are already a carbon-neutral company. We achieve that through efficiency, using renewable resources where we can, and then finally by offsetting whatever is left. We realize that being more transparent about our footprint makes sense because it can help move the conversation forward with other companies in relaying information about their footprints as well. We've done very well in maintaining very efficient operations, with our data centers using half as much energy as traditional data centers. These efforts at our data centers have helped us save over $1 billion.

ENERGYBIZ What share of your energy comes from renewables?

NEEDHAM Right now we're around 30 percent renewable energy-powered. We're working very hard to find ways to procure more renewable energy for our operations. Our Google Green website includes a section called "The Big Picture." It relays what we're doing within our own operations with respect to efficiency and renewable energy. It lays out the impact of some of our services. The short answer is that the energy to run a light bulb for three hours is equal to about a months' worth of Google usage - but then we even offset that to achieve a zero carbon impact.

ENERGYBIZ Is there somebody who heads up that Google Green effort?

NEEDHAM We have actually several people. Urs Hoelzle is one of our senior vice presidents who heads our infrastructure, including data centers. Several groups focus on the other areas within our corporate operations and external projects, such as investing in energy efforts.

ENERGYBIZ What is the status of your external investments?

NEEDHAM We have been making investments in large-scale renewable energy projects. We have committed more than $915 million in nine projects.

We are the first and only, as far as I can tell, non-energy and non financial company to make tax-equity investments in such projects. We are also investing in very innovative projects like the transmission project off the East Coast that's going to allow 7,000 megawatts of wind generation to be developed.

ENERGYBIZ What is the status of that project, the Atlantic Wind Connection?

NEEDHAM It's moving forward and making great progress. It received Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval for its first submission and also recently received a "determination of no competitive interest" from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an important milestone on the way to obtaining a federal right of way from the Department of Interior. It continues to meet with a number of stakeholders, such as PJM, the regional transmission organization, because this project would need to fit into the regional transmission plan.

ENERGYBIZ Has anyone announced plans to deploy offshore wind to connect with this system or not?

NEEDHAM We're in active conversations with developers, several of whom have expressed interest in connecting with the backbone. The project could help those developers in a number of ways. The Atlantic Wind Connection line would reduce the amount of dollars they need to raise to do their projects. They're starting to recognize the benefits of the cost savings and time savings as well as the additional value from a reliability standpoint of aggregating several wind farms.

ENERGYBIZ Is Google planning to invest in other similar large-scale energy projects?

NEEDHAM Many of our investments are very large-scale. We invested $100 million in the $2 billion Shepherds Flat Oregon wind farm that will generate 845 megawatts when completed. We've also invested $168 million in what will be the largest solar power tower project in the world, the Ivanpah project in California on the Nevada border. Both of these projects are going well.

We've also made an investment of $157 million in the $1.2 billion Alta Wind Energy sector in California that will generate 1,550 megawatts. We've invested in SolarCity's efforts to deploy thousands of residential photovoltaic systems on the tops of homes.

ENERGYBIZ What about using Google's information resources to alter consumer and industry energy use?

NEEDHAM We've pushed for making sure that energy information is shared with the residential customers as opposed to just being used by the utility. We think that's going to open up an entire ecosystem.

Published In: EnergyBiz Magazine July/August 2012