Bringing the Internet everywhere will need clean power

Google (s GOOG) has long invested in some unusual really weird ways to get Internet access to remote places and its balloon-powered Internet access trial, dubbed Project Loon, is no exception. But Project Loon is also the latest example of how Google’s greater interests of getting everyone connected align with the unique requirements of clean power.

Project LoonThe balloons that will be used in Project Loon will be powered by 100-watt solar panels, and Google says that Project Loon will be completely charged with renewable sources. On the Project Loon website, it says:

Each unit’s electronics are powered by an array of solar panels that sits between the envelope and the hardware. In full sun, these panels produce 100 watts of power — enough to keep the unit running while also charging a battery for use at night. By moving with the wind and charging in the sun, Project Loon is able to power itself using only renewable energy sources.

This isn’t the first time that Google has turned to small, distributed clean power generation to connect up remote internet access. About five years ago, Google had a plan to build out floating data centers that could use wave power as an energy source. These data centers could be deployed to remote, or even conflict, zones to boost internet access in places that need it.

Many of the planned city-wide WiFi deployments of yesteryear, which used routers propped up on street lights and utility poles — Google was a big supporter of  them– used solar panels as a constant power supply. MuniFi didn’t work out as expected, but the concept is the same as Google’s Project Loon.

Solar in particular has long been important to Google. Its headquarters had one of the first large corporate solar rooftops when it was built back in 2007, and it has invested in many solar panel projects that could power its data centers throughout the world.

Wind power is also a big interest of Google’s. Recently Google’s moonshot lab Google X acquired high-altitude wind startup Makani Power, which has built out kite-powered wind turbines that draw power from the wind hundreds of meters off the ground. Project Loon could also possibly be using micro wind generators that create power, as it hints at tapping into wind for power, but Makani’s turbines spin around a long tether (whereas Project Loon’s wireless routers float along on balloons).

Beyond distributed, micro clean power generation (think solar panels on roofs), Google is also interested in large centralized clean power (picture a huge solar or wind farm in the desert). Google has invested over a billion dollars into huge clean power projects like wind and solar farms in the deserts, and is using these types of farms to add clean power for its data centers in remote areas.

Small solar panels and micro wind turbines are also playing an important role in bringing internet access to developing areas in India and Africa where there’s no grid. People are using their cell phones for internet access, and are using solar panels to charge their cell phones.

At the end of the day, getting internet access to everyone on the globe — either by powering data centers, powering the routers themselves, or powering the smart devices that will connect to the internet — will require flexible power generation options. The centralized coal and natural gas plants that are providing grid power to much of the developed world won’t work in the remote locations that are not yet connected.

Because Google is so interested in this concept of connecting everyone, it’s doing these more unusual trials and introducing wacky services like Project Loon. While Project Loon might end up being just too loony to work, the clean power option it’s using isn’t wacky at all and will be the answer to bringing the internet to the ends of the earth.