Google Searching for Profitable Green Energy Investments

Texas wind farm is its latest

Ken Silverstein | Jan 10, 2013

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Google is continuing to search for profitable green energy investments. Its latest find is near Amarillo, Texas where it invested $200 million in a wind plant that generates 161 megawatts.

The internet conglomerate says that so-called Spinning Spur facility that was built by the French utility EDF will not only boost the local economy but that it will also pay off for it. The investment, which closed in December, is part of a renewable energy portfolio that Google now holds -- consisting of 10 other major projects. Google has said that it will invest in these deals and then let the experts run them.

“This investment reflects Google’s ongoing commitment to clean energy and our belief that corporations can be an important new source of capital for this sector,” says Kojo Ako-Asare, senior manger at Google Corporate Finance. Altogether, the company has 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy power.

Among the other major projects that entered Google’s portfolio in the last 12 months are the Atlantic Wind Connection and Shepherds Flat as well as the solar projects built by the Ivanpah project and Recurrent Energy. The Atlantic deal made a splash because it would be the largest off-shore wind project in the United States while Shepard’s Flat is a 845 megawatt Oregon-based wind facility that became operational in October 2012.

Google is a ravenous consumer of electricity and it must find a way to become more efficient and cleaner. By placing its bets on green energy, it is attempting to understand how it works and to help create economies of scale so that it can be cost-effectively generated. It operates hundreds of thousands of servers that use tons of electricity, which are often derived from coal. As the global leader in internet technologies, the web-based giant says that it can do better.

The basic building blocks are already in place. It has gained the experience constructing and designing large-scale data centers. The same lessons apply when it comes to expanding the use of renewable energy, it says, noting that the primary technologies are now available. They just need investment so that they can size up.

Tax Incentives

The most practical method, it says, is to invest in deals created by professionals. For now, it is making loans to developers with track records. Not only has Google been getting the cash grants from the U.S. Treasury for those investments but it is also earning a reasonable interest rate from its borrowers. In fact, it is that cash grant -- in lieu of the production tax credit -- that has drawn the deep pockets into the solar and wind fields.

EDF Renewable Energy, which built Spinning Spur, has 50 other clean energy projects, the company says. The wind farm’s output has already been contracted out to SPS, which is a utility that primarily serves Texas and New Mexico.

“EDF Renewable Energy is pleased to engage with an innovative company like Google on this equity financing," says Jim Peters, vice president of project finance. "The partnership between our companies reflects a departure from sourcing investment capital from traditional financial institutions for our renewable energy projects. This transaction provides an opportunity for a leading renewable energy developer to join forces with a leading technology company to create value for both our companies and our respective customers.”

Google’s green energy forays are generally applauded. However, skeptics are asking whether the company would risk its capital in those projects if not for the lucrative tax breaks. Google, for instance, is accessing the 30-percent tax credit offered by the government in the form of up-front cash. That’s because the alternative, the production tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity generated, is only relevant if the projects actually get built.

Green energy advocates have responded to the skepticism by saying that equity investors had been sitting on the sidelines, making the production credit useless. Hence, the 2009 stimulus plan incorporated the so-called 1603 Treasury Program that worked to immediately get money into the game.

That 1603 provision has been extended along with the production tax credit as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. Both would apply to projects started in 2013 and last for only one year. Developers would have two years to complete their deals. In all likelihood, the tax incentives provided to wind and other green projects will get revamped. If Congress takes up comprehensive tax-reform, it would get incorporated into a bigger package that may take a few years to write.

As for Google, it says that the tax incentives help spur investment. But it is emphasizing that it is a long-term participant in the green energy field -- and that those projects are breath of fresh air to all involved.


EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com


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Comments

PTC program extension

I am not sure that the PTC extension has been properly explained in the article.  The PTC PROGRAM was extended for a year but the PTCs are for 10 years once granted.  Also, the qualification criteria was changed from being operational by the end of the year to the project being started in 2013, which is a somewhat nebulous criterion.  What exactly does being started mean?  Conceptual engineering, permits requested or granted, ground breaking????

There will be a whole shipload of projects "started" in 2013 so highly profitable companies like Google can get other taxpayers' money to pay the companies' taxes.