Rick Needham joined Google in 2008, as director of green business operations and strategy. A 1992 graduate of the U.S. Naval Acad- emy, he served eight years as a nuclear submarine officer, taking
time off to earn a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He spent some time at Bain & Co.,
the management consulting firm, while he earned an MBA at Harvard. In
2002 he joined Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research, leading the lab’s business
development effort and managing projects in clean energy, medicine and
robotics, notably a semirobotic prosthetic arm.
Google’s eight massive data centers in the United States and Europe are
huge power purchasers, using electricity for data processing and cooling.
“Google has been obsessive about efficiency within its own data centers
since the company’s inception,” Needham said. Its centers, through careful
design, use electricity at half the rate of the average large data center, saving
the company over $1 billion to date. Nonetheless, Google’s website claims
it buys roughly 0.01 percent of all the electricity generated in the world.
That would be about 2 terawatt-hours annually. Needham estimates that
about 25 percent of Google’s power now comes from renewable sources.
The company had already created an efficient headquarters campus, the
Googleplex, equipping an existing 500,000-square-foot ( 46,452-square-
meter) structure with 1.6 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic (PV) arrays,
in 2007 the largest such array in the country.
Today, Needham and his team have invested about $853 million in
clean energy projects, plus a commitment to help fund the development
of the $5 billion Atlantic Wind Connection direct-current trunk line.
Recent investments include about $355 million [note: $280m for Solar
City, $75m for CPF] in residential leasing (through SolarCity and Clean
Power Finance), $297 million in several U.S. wind farms, $178 million in
startup and project funding for the BrightSource Ivanpah power tower
concentrating solar power plant and $5 million for the Brandenburg PV
farm in Germany. This doesn’t include seed capital for a number of early-stage companies in wind, geothermal, biofuels, efficiency and other clean-tech sectors.
Needham is adamant that Google invests pragmatically, looking for
solid financial returns. He’d like other large corporations to emulate
Google’s investments in clean tech, and can point to a few European companies that do: Ikea and Volkswagen, for instance. But so far it’s clear that
Google will invest where most other cash-rich corporations fear to tread.
“We’ve had companies talk to us about how we do this, but in the typical
corporation there’s resistance from the treasury officer on the grounds that
a renewable energy investment isn’t part of the core business, so why do
it?” he said. “We are lucky in having a treasury that looks at a promising
investment and says, ‘Why not?’” As a result, he believes that Google is
the largest investor in renewable energy outside the energy business and
“The large-scale energy projects are important to the future and to the
company,” he said. “As a large purchaser of energy, we want to see long-
Google’s rick Needham
by SETH MASiA
14 January/February 2012 SOLAR TODAY solartoday.org
seth masia is the editor/associate publisher of SOLAR TODA Y. Contact him at
“the large-scale energy projects are important o the future and to the company. as a large purchaser of energy, we want to see long-term price stability along with new sources of renewable energy that make economic sense.”
term price stability along with new sources of renewable energy that make
He’s happy with all the recent investments. “SolarCity, for instance,
has been growing quite well,” he noted. “Now that [equipment] prices
have come down and financing is in place, clean energy can be sold at
lower prices. The fact that panel manufacturers have lowered their prices
by two-thirds over the past couple of years is amazing. SolarCity is hiring
like crazy and generating local jobs.”
Meanwhile, Google’s portfolio of wind farms are all up and operating,
except the newest one: Shepherds Flat, the 845-MW project along the
Columbia River, is under construction and should commission next year
as the largest wind farm in the world.
“BrightSource is moving along quite well,” Needham said. “The first
tower is going up now and all three plants are in progress. The company is
doing well in respect to its environmental issues. We’re quite happy with
the adaptability it has shown in dealing with those challenges.”
Needham perks up when discussing the Atlantic Wind Connection
(AWC), the 350-mile undersea trunk line meant to serve up to 6,000
MW of wind farms off the coasts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and
Virginia. Google has committed to taking a 37. 5 percent share in the ven-
ture, which may cost $5 billion to build. The first steps are in place: AWC
recently earned approval of its incentive rates through the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission and submitted their request to the Department
of the Interior for approval of the cable right-of-way.
“It’s risky early stage investment, but will be transformative,” Needham
said. “It will kickstart the entire industry. The United States as yet has no
offshore wind, despite a resource that [DOI] Secretary Salazar says has
the potential for 1,000 gigawatts. The cable will provide a very strong
signal to manufacturers and developers that there’s 6,000 MW of offshore
wind to be connected. It will greatly reduce the cost of permitting and
connecting all those projects, because we’ll already hold the permits for
crossing sensitive coastal areas. It will also greatly increase the value of
the high-voltage DC source by providing control of how that energy is
transmitted and aggregated. Any single-asset transmission line would have
a utilization factor of about 50 percent, but this backbone will aggregate
multiple wind farms for a better utilization factor. Then the grid operator
really controls where and how the power comes in. Lower transmission
Copyright © 2012 by the American Solar Energy Society Inc. All rights reserved.
Innovators continued on page 48