My brother is one of the lucky individuals beta-testing the new Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) product Google Glass. I think they look a little ridiculous (even if they are wicked cool to play with), but I have not been too concerned with prime light-hogging wearable computing. Instead, I have been watching the tech giant quietly increase its investment in renewable energy. I would even argue that some of the technologies coming out of Google X have larger potential than Glass for shareholders and consumers alike.
Google X takes to the skies ... literally
Big G has invested more than $1 billion in wind and solar projects globally since rolling out its ambitious clean energy agenda. The projects will generate over 2 gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power 500,000 homes. Notable investments include a $280 million check cut to SolarCity to assist in financing residential solar projects, and a 37.5% equity stake in the development of a 7,000 MW offshore wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps the biggest potential reward lies in an investment in -- and recent acquisition of -- Makani Power. Never heard of it? You will. The company is developing autonomous, flying wind turbines that will capture higher-altitude wind that is out of reach of conventional turbines, and churn it out for just 3 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).
It may sound crazy, but Makani can create a 1 MW kite turbine out of carbon fiber that weighs just 10% of a ground-based 100-ton behemoth. The technology, together with software from Google, will enable more reliable power generation, and greatly expand the geographic potential of wind-sourced energy. It could be the game-changing technology needed to unlock the 4,150,000 MW of wind potential hiding offshore in the United States.
The greening of corporate America
Google may be a corporate leader in renewable energy investment, but it's far from the only company priming itself for a carbon neutral, off-grid future. Here are renewable energy highlights from four of the country's biggest companies.
- Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD ) may give us the King of Beers, but it is also making a run at being the King of Green. The company's New York facilities, including its massive Baldwinsville brewery, receive 40% of their power from hydro sources, while a single 340-foot wind turbine provides up to 20% of the electricity for the Fairfield, Cali. brewery. Not to be outdone, the Houston brewery acquires 60% of its power from landfill gas. Why stop there? Anheuser maintains that anaerobic digesters provide 9% of the fuel needs of its 10 U.S. breweries by consuming wastewater alone.
- The Maiden, California data center from Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) produces enough electricity to power 17,600 American homes and represents the largest non-utility power generation site in the country. A 100-acre solar array will be complemented by an additional 20 MW solar farm being constructed with SunPower. Its corporate offices in Austin and Sacramento are fully supported by green energy, while the company utilizes renewable sources for 75% of its total energy needs.
- Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) wants to cut its carbon intensity in half by 2020. How do you do that? The telecom giant just made a $100 million investment to convert 19 of its domestic sites to solar and fuel cell technology that will produce 90 million kWh annually. Bloom Energy, a growing favorite among corporate America, will supply enough solid oxide fuel cells to generate 16 million kWh of electricity, while ClearEdge Power will supply 400 fuel cells of its own. The balance will come from solar panels provided under a multi-year agreement with SunPower.
- Walmart (NYSE: WMT ) generates enough green energy globally to power 78,000 homes, and is the largest off-grid clean energy generator in the United States. Walmart produces over 71 million kWh of electricity from solar power worldwide, and 65 million kWh from fuel cells in the United States alone. Furthermore, over 350 stores in Texas receive up to 15% of their electricity needs from a Duke Energy wind farm. One day, the company aims to power its stores with onsite micro-wind farms.
Foolish bottom line
The greening of corporate America will not only free these large companies from the constraints of the grid, but could pay big dividends for shareholders and all Americans. These investments will pay for themselves in due time, reducing power costs, and boosting the bottom lines for investors. Consumers have plenty to gain, as well. Google's investment in Makani Power and the various partnerships with residential solar firms such as SunPower and SolarCity could help bring micro-grid technology to your home. So, while Google Glass has the wow factor, don't forget about the renewable energy investments that could really change your life.
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