Why Google ditching its clean power research isn’t a big deal

Updated: Google (s GOOG) has officially shut down its initiative to reduce the cost of clean power via its philanthropic arm Google.org. The project dubbed renewable energy less than coal — or RE<C — was four years old and included research into solar thermal designs and geothermal energy and also included a few investments in clean energy companies. But Google still remains committed to clean power in several ways far more important than the RE<C project, which have represented the bulk of Google’s work with energy and clean power.
Google will still continue to invest in clean power projects, Google spokesperson Parag Chokshi tells me. Google has already invested $850 million into solar and wind projects in the U.S., like the world’s largest wind farm in Oregon, and solar rooftop funds from SolarCity and Clean Power Finance.
Google invests in clean power projects like these for two reasons:

  1. Google can get a low risk return on its investments in clean power. In the range of 12 percent or so for some projects, according to analysts I’ve interviewed (updated).
  2. Google also wants to be able to procure more clean power for its growing energy needs for its data centers, so backing some of these clean power projects can help with that.

Beyond investing in clean power projects, Google will continue to innovate around energy efficiency for its data centers, as a way to reduce its energy costs. Google has been one of the most innovative companies when it comes to creating its own efficient designs for its data centers, for cooling its data centers and for its servers,and Google has led the way for projects like Facebook’s open compute initiative, which uses low-power servers and outside air for cooling.
Lastly, Google will likely continue to make equity investments in energy-related companies through Google Ventures, its venture capital arm. Google Ventures has backed companies like solar financing company Clean Power Finance, car sharing company Relay Rides, smart grid firm Silver Spring Networks, climate data company The Climate Corporation (formerly Weather Bill), thermoelectric material maker Transphorm, and learning thermostat company Nest.
Google’s investments via its REActaCell, and geothermal companies Potter Drilling and AltaRock Energy. Google also invested directly in BrightSource’s solar plant beyond RE.