Google claims to be cleaner than most utilities

Google has committed to meeting 100% of its corporate energy demand with clean energy by next year.
Published: Tue 13 Dec 2016

Google, the world's leading internet services company, plans to purchase 2.6GW of electricity under long-term contracts with renewable energy providers in a bid to meet its ambitious clean energy commitments. This is up from 2GW a year ago.

Google Senior Vice President of Technical Infrastructure Urs Hölzle says that this level of renewables adoption is bigger than what many large utilities have achieved to date.

Renewable energy makes business sense

Most of its power will be harnessed from wind and solar energy which has become increasingly 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 US data network.

"Our engineers have spent years perfecting Google's data centres, making them 50% 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.”

Electricity costs are one of the largest components of Google’s operating expenses at its data centres. Having a long-term stable cost of renewable power provides protection against price swings in energy, says Hölzle.

In terms of total MWs of renewable energy procured, Google is far ahead of its IT rivals including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.[Apple Generates its Own Power for Data Centres]

Google encourages clean energy use

In addition to its renewable energy procurement plans, Google has deployed a number of technologies to help consumers harness the benefits of clean energy at home and in the workplace. For instance, the company's Project Sunroof programme used Google Earth 3-D imagery to help individual homeowners and even communities choose the right solar rooftop panels in order to harness the real potential of this clean energy source. [Google’s ‘Project Sunroof’ To Map Solar Potential]

The company has also invested heavily in what is known as "machine learning" to help boost the computing power of its data centres while using significantly less energy. According to Brandt, a Google data centre 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.

Google leads by example

Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, says that Google's more than six-year commitment to renewable energy is "paying off." He added that the 100% renewables achievement "is a definitive demonstration that renewable energy is cost-effective and readily available at scale today."

Greenpeace, which closely tracks 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."

Greenpeace stated that Google is "redefining the art of the possible by bringing significant renewable energy projects onto the same grid its data centres are powered from."

The company says that Google’s programme stands in contrast to some other IT firms that buy renewable energy credits to meet clean energy goals while continuing to power their data centres 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."

The gap between data centres and utilities

There are obvious cost benefits for data centres when it comes to using clean energy but the communication gap between utilities and data centres still stands in the way of procurement. [Data Centres and Utilities Must Collaborate to Realise Energy Efficiency]. The Green Grid Association, a non-profit global consortium dedicated to driving resource efficiency in data centres and IT, set out to determine the influence of utility incentives on data centres and whether incentive programmes can be adapted to achieve better results.

The results of the research were published in a white paper titled: Green Carrots: Utility Incentive Programs and the IT Industry. The paper identifies a number of roadblocks to progress as the power industry and the data centre industry seek to work together to make efficiencies. According to the research, data centre operators and utility companies are failing to help each other make efficiencies. In addition, there appears to be a lack of understanding and a failure to communicate, from both sides, as the industry fails to harness cost and energy savings.

Data centre owners are accused of a lack of knowledge, with many unaware of the incentives available to them from utility companies. Utility companies, in turn, are criticized for the lack of self-awareness across their own industry. According to The Green Grid, many individual utilities have studied their effectiveness but no industry-wide investigation has been carried out. Subsequently, there has been no cross-fertilization of ideas and no collaboration. Research into the utilities has been too narrow, the white paper results show.

The concept of utility incentives designed specifically for data centres is still rather new. Many data centre owners and operators may not be aware of the resources currently invested by utility companies to help promote energy efficiency. Without adequate participation from them and from more utilities investing in targeted incentive programmes for this growing industry, the potential energy and cost efficiencies will not be realized.