Will Google become an energy business?

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Anya Kamenetz has an interesting take on Google's reboot of Google.org over at Fast Company's blog. Larry Brilliant is leaving his role as head of Google.org to become the company's "Chief Philanthropy Evangelist," and he'll be replaced by Megan Smith. He says:

By focusing my energy outwards I hope to be able to spend more time motivating policy makers, encouraging public and private partnerships, and generally advocating for the changes that we must make as a global society to solve these problems. Long-time Googler Megan Smith will take over day-to-day management of Google.org, joining as General Manager to lead us through this transition, in addition to her existing role as Vice President of New Business Development.

So what does this mean?

Anya suggests that this is a shrewd recession-fighting measure.

I wonder if this closer alignment between business aims and philanthropic ones couldn't also be seen as an anti-recessionary measure. Profits fell for the first time last quarter and the Goog has gone through quiet cutbacks in perks and personnel

Brilliant emphasizes that Google retains its commitment to invest 1% of equity and profits to make the world a better place, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily giving billions away. On the contrary, Google.org has earned over $100 million to date from investments in global health, clean energy and access to information. By putting the wildly popular Brilliant out on the road more as a brand evangelist, adding to Smith's job description, and tapping more Googlers' 20% time for do-gooder projects, Google gets to shine its image and build its business at the same time for less cash. Good thinking!

This makes sense. But I wonder if something even bigger is afoot. Professional Google-worshipper -- and I mean that in the best sense -- Jeff Jarvis is convinced that Google's green energy commitment, part of Google.org's core mission, runs deep. After a long discussion of the Google gestalt, Jarvis recounts a conversation with Larry Page that promises, well, a total transformation of the world's energy economy.

Page explained that there is a market now for green energy at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Some people and companies want to buy it, though it is expensive, because they want to do good or need good PR. But the true market cost of energy is still far below that. Google.org wants to find a way to produce renewable power at three cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than coal, which not only gives them a good deal but also shuts down dirty coal plants.

If it succeeds, the foundation would change Google's business and other entire industries, starting with autos. With energy that cheap, Google?.org envisions cars plugged into the power grid, solving the problem of pollution from burning gasoline and changing the political balance of oil power (though they point out that the power grid is in woeful need of an upgrade).

The importance of web advertising pales in comparison.

Jarvis stresses that Google is uninterested in a subsidy-driven approach to energy investment, but I wonder: Given that, as Chris Good reports, there is a new pool of money for green energy in the stimulus, might Google angle for some of it? This would cut against Google's brilliant branding, yet it does seem like a good hedge against a chilly economic climate.

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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