How Google thinks

Fortune has an interesting interview with Google cofounder Larry Page. Here he is pontificating about alternative energy, one of his company’s eclectic new research areas: Chris Hondros/Getty Images You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven’t changed much in 50 years? We’ve been looking a little ...

By , a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.
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595213_080502_page2.jpg

Fortune has an interesting interview with Google cofounder Larry Page. Here he is pontificating about alternative energy, one of his company's eclectic new research areas:

Fortune has an interesting interview with Google cofounder Larry Page. Here he is pontificating about alternative energy, one of his company’s eclectic new research areas:

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

You can be a bit of a detective and ask, What are the industries where things haven’t changed much in 50 years? We’ve been looking a little at geothermal power. And you start thinking about it, and you say, Well, a couple of miles under this spot or almost any other place in the world, it’s pretty darn hot. How hard should it be to dig a really deep hole? We’ve been drilling for a long time, mostly for oil – and oil’s expensive. If you want to move heat around, you need bigger holes. The technology just hasn’t been developed for extracting heat. I imagine there’s pretty good odds that’s possible.

Solar thermal’s another area we’ve been working on; the numbers there are just astounding. In Southern California or Nevada, on a day with an average amount of sun, you can generate 800 megawatts on one square mile. And 800 megawatts is actually a lot. A nuclear plant is about 2,000 megawatts.

The amount of land that’s required to power the entire U.S. with electricity is something like 100 miles by 100 miles. So you say, “What do I need to do to generate that power?” You could buy solar cells. The problem is, at today’s solar prices you’d need trillions of dollars to generate all the electricity in the U.S. Then you say, “Well, how much do mirrors cost?” And it turns out you can buy pieces of glass and a mirror and you can cover those areas for not that much money. Somehow the world is not doing a good job of making this stuff available. As a society, on the larger questions we have, we’re not making reasonable progress.

And yet, Page is optimistic that this progress can accelerate:

Look at the things we worry about – poverty, global warming, people dying in accidents. And look at the things that drive people’s basic level of happiness – safety and opportunity for their kids, plus basic things like health and shelter. I think our ability to achieve these things on a large scale for many people in the world is improving.

Blake Hounshell is a former managing editor of Foreign Policy.

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