The world's leading internet services company is again expanding its climate and clean energy commitments, announcing yesterday that by 2017 it will meet 100 percent of its corporate energy demand with carbon-free energy.
Alphabet Inc.'s Google, whose physical headquarters is in Mountain View, Calif., but whose digital footprint extends across the globe, said it now has commitments to purchase 2.6 gigawatts of electricity under long-term contracts with renewable energy providers. That's up from 2 GW a year ago.
"That's bigger than many large utilities and more than twice as much as the 1.21 gigawatts it took to send Marty McFly back in time," Google Senior Vice President of Technical Infrastructure Urs Hölzle said in a statement, referencing the 1985 blockbuster movie "Back to the Future."
But where the film's DeLorean time machine was powered by a lightning strike to its flux capacitor, Google says it will harness most of its power from wind turbines and solar panels. Such resources have become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many regions, including states like Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon, where Google is building the backbone of its U.S. data network.
"Our engineers have spent years perfecting Google's data centers, making them 50 percent more energy efficient than the industry average," Hölzle said. "But we still need a lot of energy to process trillions of Google searches every year, play more than 400 hours of YouTube videos uploaded every minute, and power the products and services that our users depend on.
"That's why we began purchasing renewable energy — to reduce our carbon footprint and address climate change. But it also makes business sense," he added. "Electricity costs are one of the largest components of our operating expenses at our data centers, and having a long-term stable cost of renewable power provides protection against price swings in energy."
It also places Google ahead of its IT rivals — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — in terms of total megawatts of renewable energy procured, according to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Google's renewable energy announcement was made alongside the release of a larger environmental report, which for the first time distills the firm's sustainability goals and achievements — from energy efficiency and solid waste reduction to water conservation and the benefits of cloud computing — into one document.
Kate Brandt, Google's lead for sustainability, described the report as detailing "the major pillars of our work ... so that other people can learn from what we've done."
Renewables 'readily available'
In addition to its renewable energy procurement program, Google has deployed a variety of technologies to help its consumers bring clean energy benefits closer to home, Brandt said. For example, the company's Project Sunroof program used Google Earth 3-D imagery to help individual homeowners and even communities determine the potential for deploying rooftop solar panels.
The company has also invested heavily in what is known as "machine learning" to help boost the computing power of its data centers while using significantly less energy. According to Brandt, a Google data center today can extract 3.5 times more computing power from a single unit of energy compared with five years ago. That converts to millions of additional Google searches, Gmail deliveries and YouTube streamings with no additional environmental impact, officials said.
Reaction to Google's report, and especially to its pending clean energy milestone, was largely positive.
Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a statement that Google's more than six-year commitment to renewable energy is "paying off." He added that the 100 percent renewables achievement "is a definitive demonstration that renewable energy is cost-effective and readily available at scale today."
Greenpeace, which has closely tracked IT companies for the environmental impacts of their operations, including through the use of its annual "Click Green Scorecard," described Google as "a catalyst in the dramatic growth in renewable energy procurement among corporations."
Among other things, Greenpeace noted that Google was "redefining the art of the possible by bringing significant renewable energy projects onto the same grid its data centers are powered from." That stands in contrast to some other IT firms that purchase renewable energy credits to meet clean energy goals but continue to power their data centers and offices with grid-delivered fossil energy.
Gary Cook, senior IT analyst for Greenpeace, said the timing of Google's announcement is also significant. Corporate action on renewables has been an important driver for the clean energy sector over the past five years, and Google is among the firms that got the ball rolling.
"Many companies have stood with the Obama administration's efforts to push for more renewable energy and action on climate change, and Google in particular has been putting their money where their mouth is," Cook said. "Such continued leadership is likely to play an even more important role in the months to come, and companies who care about climate change and access to renewable energy need to stand up and be counted to accelerate the transition to a renewably powered economy."
Reporter Christa Marshall contributed.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.