November 29, 2007 4:00 AM PST
Newsmaker: Spending Google's money on conscientious causesSee all Newsmakers
The company not only recycles and composts, it also boasts buildings made from recycled materials and offers free commuter shuttle rides and cash incentives to employees buying hybrid gas-electric cars.
It launched a program to convert company cars to plug-in hybrids, and it has the largest corporate installation of solar-powered electricity. It is a leader in an initiative to increase efficiency in PCs, and its employees dine on free-range beef and eggs from cage-free hens.
This week, Google said it would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund companies developing clean-energy technology. It plans to invest directly in technologies like solar-thermal power, wind power, and geothermal systems. The goal is to find a way to make renewable energy cheaper than coal and thus reduce greenhouse emissions that threaten the future of the planet.
CNET News.com talked about Google's philanthropic actions and philosophies with Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of nonprofit Google.org. Brilliant has spent much of his adult life working on health and public-policy initiatives. A public health physician by training, he helped eradicate smallpox in India while working with the United Nations, founded a nonprofit that provides aid to the blind, and has served as a volunteer in helping victims of natural disasters.
At Google.org, Brilliant has the backing of one of the most successful technology companies and the opportunity to influence other wealthy businesses to look beyond product releases and profit margins.
Q: How significant is it for Google and Google.org--and in general, for an Internet company--to be doing this?
Brilliant: Well, the most important thing is, is it good for the world? I just did a Commonwealth Club talk with the undersecretary general of the U.N., who just released a report called "The Human Face of Climate Change."
It's really interesting. We have the luxury in the developed world of talking about climate change in the future tense, like it will be bad for my kids or my grandchildren, but if you're a farmer in Andhra Pradesh, or you're a peasant in Tanzania, you can't use the future tense because your land is already dry; you can't produce enough calories of food per hectare, as you did before.
There are thousands of suicides in southern India because the farmer is unable to keep up with the effects on (his) land from salt water. This is a real phenomenon all over the world, and we have to treat it with the respect and the urgency that it demands; not as another fad or another kind of media event. This is real.
So, Google is just one company. There are lots of people trying to combat this. This is the challenge of our generation, but we're hoping that if we put everything we have into it, others will do the same, and we're in a good position because we've got cash, we have Google.org already set up to do nonprofit stuff, and we're a large buyer of electricity.
So we can prototype and test these new technologies, we've got thousands of engineers to work on it, and we have two founders who are so impassioned about this...The theme that I'm pleased to see gain attraction is that you can make money by going into the renewable-energy business.
So why should we take Google serious in the energy business? Are you in the energy business now?
Brilliant: We are in the energy business now. Why should we take Google seriously? Well, I think some people will, and some people won't. We have a need, ourselves, to be a buyer of clean energy. As a fast-growing company we realize that if we don't become part of the solution, we will be part of the problem, and that's not acceptable to (co-founders) Larry (Page), or Sergey (Brin), or me, or any of us. We don't want to be part of the problem.
We're prepared to back up this announcement with investments in start-up companies working in the area of renewable energy. We're going to be hiring like mad the best engineers that we can find--and not just engineers: scientists, chemists, physicists, material scientists. The best way to know if you should take us seriously is to watch our deeds.
How committed are you going to be, in terms of resources, time, and personnel?
Brilliant: Very committed. There are two different ways in which that commitment will be shown. Google.org will be actively investing...We've already been contacted by a lot venture capital companies, asking us if we'll partner.
We're also hiring through Google into an R&D unit that was created as of the announcement. Those are serious resources, but it's just the beginning. In the press release (announcing the renewable-energy initiative, we committed) hundreds of millions of dollars of capital.
Well, what will the effort become? It sounds like it's going to be more than just a few investments. Could it turn into something really big and long-term?
Brilliant: It depends on what we find. I was pleasantly surprised by the seven-times-greater response to the RFP (request for proposals on the plug-in hybrid-electric car) plan than I had anticipated. It gives us many more opportunities to invest. So it's hard to answer that question until we see what comes in. But we're very serious.