Google Techno Giant Tilts at Windmills

Was a time when building a high-tech superhighway of information—giving the world instant access to knowledge about almost anything—would earn you a good night’s sleep.

Not anymore. Perhaps Google Inc. is tossing and turning over the amount of power it requires to run over a million servers. Perhaps the cyber giant is still having nightmares from being called “an energy glutton that is only growing hungrier” in a 2008 Harper’s Magazine article entitled “Keyword: Evil; Google’s Addiction to Cheap Electricity.”

Google announced over the weekend its new invention, robot cars. Apparently—while most of us have been busy Googling laptops, viewing YouTube, or doing all of the above on our Androids—Google has been test-driving (literally) self-driving cars over 140,000 miles of northern California’s roads and highways and hopes all this will become reality, well, down the road.

Then Tuesday, the restless giant announced even bigger ideas: a massive, underwater “superhighway for clean energy.” In short, Google is set on building a deep-water transmission system to carry power generated by numerous offshore wind turbines (yet to be built) to an onshore power grid system (yet to be built).

Google is one of three firms putting up tens of millions of dollars for a $5 billion renewables project to build 350 miles of underwater cables. The interconnecting system will run some 15 miles off the shores of New Jersey to Virginia and carry the current to an onshore power grid for distribution.

Google claims, if successful, it would service close to 2 million homes, more than half the amount of wind power installed in the U.S. last year.

I can’t help thinking, as good as Google seems to be at most anything it does, it should stick to what it does best. That is, thanks to the genious of the Google search engine, I have learned that there are some very serious problems with offshore wind power—and which could explain why no offshore wind farms exist to date off U.S. coasts.

Cost, cost, and cost. By Google’s own calculation, offshore wind power is expected to run two to three times higher than conventional power.

In fact, the federal Minerals Management Service estimated back in 2008 that a wind farm proposed off Cape Cod would cost $122 per megawatt-hour compared to the average market price of electricity in New England at the time, at $66. And that’s after subsidies provided to defray the costs of wind power are taken into account.

But even that estimate appears low. From Reuters:

No offshore wind farms have yet been built anywhere along U.S. coasts, and the rates that Deepwater Wind and Cape Wind have proposed charging consumers for the electricity they would generate are much higher than the public had expected.

Those rates—about three times higher than the prevailing cost of electricity in New England over the past five years—reflect the poor economies of scale of a nascent technology…

The Long Island Power Authority fought hard three years ago to build a wind farm off Long Island but was forced to give it up when a cost study revealed the project would exceed $800 million, double the estimated cost.

“It’s just too expensive,” Long Island Power Authority Chairman Kevin Law told The Associated Press. “It’s not going to work. This is an economically based decision. We didn’t even have to consider environmental or aesthetic concerns.”

Proponents of an extensive transmission project, such as the one Google is proposing, argue this venture is different because it would utilize a network system connecting numerous wind farms off the mid-Atlantic coast and would greatly benefit from economies of scale.

That may or may not be true. The building costs of 350 miles of transmission cable, nine wind turbines, and a power grid system, compared to a single offshore wind farm, would be astronomical.

Even Trans-Elect, the company to build the transmission cable told Greenwire that how the offshore project will be paid for will be “probably our biggest hurdle. Funding for this project will come from ratepayers.”

Then again, it is Google. Maybe the techno giant can run lots of pop-up ads along the wind turbines to help defray the costs.

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