General Electric Co.’s local research and development arm is emerging as a key player in the conglomerate’s fledgling partnership with Google Inc.
Last month, Google sent an eight-person team to GE Global Research to examine alternative energy research projects being conducted by GE scientists in Niskayuna. Google staff wanted to see how that research could be applied to related initiatives supported by the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant.
The visit followed the companies’ September announcement that they would collaborate on developing what is called “smart grid” technology for the next generation of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. GE and Google have signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding that will also have them working together on enhanced geothermal systems and technology, which enables companies to harness energy from heat emitted from rock deep below the surface of the Earth.
GE Global Research plans to follow up on December’s meeting in February by sending a team to the search engine’s Googleplex headquarters in central California, said Eric Butterfield, GE Global Research’s energy business program manager and global technology leader for electric systems and controls.
Butterfield said the companies should hammer out information-sharing agreements by the end of the first quarter. They are now trying to “really pull back the covers and explore how these two great companies will work together.”
“At this stage, it’s too early to tell how this is going to materialize,” Butterfield said.
Google spokeswomen in California and New York did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The partnership promises to speed the production of plug-in electric cars supported by a smart grid and electric generation from clean energy sources. But it does not appear likely that Google will immediately seat scientists at GE’s sprawling campus in Niskayuna, where more than 1,900 work.
“We would do our work here and they would do their work there, and we would share our information,” Butterfield said.
Google is particularly interested in GE Global Research’s smart grid works and how that technology can support the recharging of electric vehicles. Although GE has worked on electric transmission and distribution infrastructures for more than a century, it only five years ago began researching smart grid technology in Niskayuna. The conglomerate, in collaboration with utilities and the U.S. Department of Energy, has several smart grid projects under way. The technology optimizes grid performance, improves reliability and manages the generation of power in a more environmentally friendly way.
In June 2007, Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, unveiled a $10 million initiative to advance the development of plug-in cars. Google is amassing a fleet of 100 plug-in cars consisting of modified Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hybrids.
Through partnerships with lithium battery manufacturer A123Systems and Enterprise Car Rental, Google is using those vehicles in a car-sharing program for employees to support alternative commuting.
GE Global Research has also been working with Chrysler Corp. in developing energy storage systems for plug-in hybrid cars. GE in October announced that it was investing $30 million — on top of its earlier $55 million investment — in the Watertown, Mass.-based A123, making it the battery manufacturer’s single largest cash investor.
Google and billionaire investor Warren Buffet have also emerged as strong financial supporters of technology that converts the Earth’s heat into electricity. In August, Google.org announced plans to invest more than $10.25 million in enhanced geothermal systems.
The search engine poured those funds into three companies — AltaRock Energy, Potter Drilling and Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab — to develop ways to cull heat from deeply buried hot dry rock. Similar sources of heat fuel the geysers at Yellowstone National Park and natural hot springs.
Google plans to tap GE Global Research’s expertise on steam turbines, which can turn heat from hot dry rock into electricity. Niskayuna scientists might also apply to geothermal systems their expertise in oil and gas drilling technology, which they have been researching since GE’s 1994 acquisition of Nuovo Pignone in Florence, Italy, Butterfield said.
“We plan to continue to work together and find these areas of joint overlap,” Butterfield said.
A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated that 2 percent of the heat located up to 10 feet below the continental United States is more than 2,500 times the nation’s total annual energy use.
The U.S. Department of the Interior in October has announced that it is opening 190 million acres of federal land in 12 Western states to the development of geothermal energy resources. That move is expected to create 5,540 megawatts of new electric generation capacity, and by 2025, the DOI expects to add to that 6,600 megawatts of capacity. The aggregate 12,100 megawatts could power 12 million homes.