Google Funds $1M Competition for Improved Power Inverters

As Google continues to work on renewable energy projects, it is now funding a competition to develop better power inverters that can help save the energy that's generated.

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Google has launched a $1 million prize for a competition it hopes will inspire new ideas and innovations in the development of better solar power inverters, which collect renewable energy so it can be used.

The Little Box Challenge was announced by Google on May 9 in a post on the company's Google+ page, as it begins seeking entrants for the competition.

"Today at an event with President Obama, we announced the Little Box Challenge, a $1 million prize to develop the next generation of power inverters," the post states. "This prize is one of Google's many efforts to advance a clean energy future. We have a goal of powering our operations with 100% renewable energy, and to that end have contracted over a gigawatt of wind energy for our data centers. Beyond powering our own operations, we've also committed over $1 billion to 16 renewable energy projects around the world."

So far, Google hasn't provided full details about the competition and what kinds of "next-generation power inverters" it envisions. The project's home page is just a placeholder so far, though it describes it as an "open competition to build a (much) smaller power inverter." The page also states that "sometimes the biggest win comes from making something smaller."

A power inverter is a cooler-sized box that is used in a home equipped with solar panels, according to Google. "They convert direct current (DC) power generated by the panels to alternating current (AC) power that can be used in homes and businesses," according to a Google statement received by eWEEK in response to an inquiry about the contest. "They're big and expensive relative to the systems they serve."

The coming importance of such devices is the reason behind the competition, according to Google. "Roughly 80 percent of all electricity will flow through inverters and other power electronic systems by 2030, making them critically important for future electricity infrastructure and use," the company said in the statement. "We want to shrink inverters down significantly, which will dramatically reduce costs for these systems while making them more efficient. This is no mean feat, and there will be obstacles to overcome. But the winner of this prize has the potential to make a significant impact on the future of electricity."

Google said it is sponsoring the competition for the $1 million prize as part of its broader efforts to advance a clean energy future.

"The innovations inspired by this prize will help make renewable energy more affordable, electric vehicles lighter and electric motors significantly more efficient," Arun Majumdar, Google's vice president of energy, said in a statement.

Google, which is a huge consumer of electricity for its modern data centers, offices and operations around the world, is always looking for ways of conserving energy and using renewable energy sources. The company has been making large investments in wind power for its data centers since 2010. Energy production is known to have a huge impact on the Earth's climate.

The company has a goal of powering its operations with 100 percent renewable energy in the future.

In January 2013, Google announced an investment of $200 million in a wind farm in western Texas near Amarillo, as the company continued to expand its involvement in the renewable energy marketplace. Google has also invested in the Spinning Spur Wind Project in Oldham County in the Texas Panhandle.

Other Google renewable energy investments include the Atlantic Wind Connection project, which will span 350 miles of the coast from New Jersey to Virginia to connect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines; and the Shepherds Flat project in Arlington, Ore., which is one of the world's largest wind farms with a capacity of 845 megawatts. Shepherds Flat began operating in October 2012.