By Barbara Kessler

While others dither about how to make coal-burning electricity plants cleaner and inch toward green electricity, replacing coal with cleaner (but still problogo.giflematic) energy sources such as hydro-electric and nuclear power, the world’s largest Internet company wants to hop skip ahead to find really clean, safe, sustainable energy.

Yes, your friendly neighborhood search engine is getting into the energy game. Google announced Tuesday that it will spend “tens of millions” to fund research into the newest and cleanest ways of producing electricity, including solar thermal power, wind power, geothermal systems and other “potential breakthrough technologies.” The goal of the initiative, called RE<C: Find ways to scale up these renewable energy sources and make them cheaper than coal.

It certainly sounds like a way to trump the game. If coal were no longer the quickest means to an end, it could mean the end of dirty electricity. As for Google becoming a player in this field. Hmmm. It’s a big company; knows a little bit about scaling up and a fair amount about innovation…

Google thinks so too. “We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centers,” said Larry Page, Google Co-founder and President of Products, in a news release.
“We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal.”

“There has been tremendous work already on renewable energy,” Page added. “Technologies have been developed that can mature into industries capable of providing electricity cheaper than coal. Solar thermal technology, for example, provides a very plausible path to providing renewable energy cheaper than coal. We are also very interested in further developing other technologies that have potential to be cost-competitive and green. We are aware of several promising technologies, and believe there are many more out there.”

The research will be funded by Google’s philanthropic wing,, and focus on producing “one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal,” which is about enough to power the city of San Francisco.

“We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades,” Page said. RE<C will hire engineers and energy experts (who will undoubtedly love the project’s coy and geeky moniker) to lead the research and development initiative, which will first focus on solar thermal technology. Needless to say, success for RE<C could lead to significant reductions in the greenhouse gases produced by coal-burning electricity plants worldwide. So we hope that their search produces many pages of fruitful results.

For more on RE<C, its partners and Google’s own efforts to become carbon neutral in 2007, see the Google Press Center news release.