Google will investigate the uses of devices like these solar panels on its headquarters roof. Credit Kimberly White/Reuters

Google will investigate the uses of devices like these solar panels on its headquarters roof. Credit Kimberly White/Reuters

Google announced yesterday (Tuesday 6th December 2016) that it will get all it’s energy from renewable sources by 2017. The search engine giant initially announced its 100-percent goal in 2012, and this week’s announcement confirms the company will hit the target next year. Google Project announcement.

“Over the calendar year globally, for every unit of energy we consume, we’re purchasing the equivalent amount or more of renewable energy” in 2017, said Neha Palmer, head of energy strategy at Google’s global infrastructure division.

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It’s hard to say this milestone has been reached ahead of schedule, because the goal was not pegged to a specific date. With that said, Google’s announcement comes ahead of most of the 83 companies in the RE 100 group that have announced a 100 percent renewable goal.

Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, Apple got to 93 percent in 2015 but evidently hasn’t closed the gap. Adobe is aiming for 2035. Facebook has targeted half of its data center energy use by 2018, with full company-wide renewables “eventually.” Of the big tech players, Microsoft took the gold medal, meeting its carbon neutral commitment back in 2014.

Google has long been a leader in corporate renewables, using its purchasing power to open up new avenues for purchasing clean energy. The future of US renewables policy remains hazy since the election of Donald Trump, meaning corporate leadership could play an even greater role in the adoption of wind and solar power in the next few years.

The announcement means that all of the search giants data centers, offices and operations will be powered by clean energy. Not all of that clean electricity is available in the vicinity of the facilities, so in those cases, the company buys the equivalent power and retires the associated renewable energy credits.

Accomplishing the 100 percent goal followed not just renewables procurement, but extensive demand-side work to reduce the load Google has to serve. In doing so, the company followed the corporate sustainability steps laid out by Hervé Touati, the managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, in a recent episode of GTM’s podcast the Interchange.

“It’s clear for most, if not all, businesses that the first thing to do is energy efficiency, because that is the most cost-effective way of going toward executing on your targets,” he said.

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Google’s data center in Oklahoma. Image courtesy of Google

For Google, that meant serious work at the data centers to cut down on the electricity needed to run all those searches and YouTube clips. Those data centers now deliver 3.5 times as much computing power as they did five years ago, while using the same amount of electricity, the company said.

Google’s parent company Alphabet also leveraged in-house expertise from DeepMind, its machine-learning subsidiary, to reduce energy needs. By training the computers to optimize operational factors like fans and cooling systems, DeepMind was able to cut the energy use for cooling data centers by 40 percent, yielding a 15 percent drop in overall energy overhead.

Efficiency can only get you so far, Touati noted. The same applies to onsite generation — the data centers need too much power.

“[If] you can cover the roof of a data center with solar PV panels, maybe you cover 5 percent of the electricity needs,” Touati said. “If you want to reach your…100 percent renewable target, the only option you have today is to actually source electricity from offsite projects.”

That’s what Google did, to the tune of 2.6 gigawatts worldwide. In some locations where renewable purchase options didn’t exist, the company worked with the local utilities to create them. That process helped produce Duke Energy’s Green Source Rider, which enabled Google to purchase power for its North Carolina data center from a 61-megawatt solar project. Now other companies can buy through that program as well.

“We hope we can expand markets even more and work with market structures to enable customers to have choice in their energy supply,” Palmer said. “The green rider was one way to do that.”

Up next for Palmer’s team: procuring new generation to keep pace with the company’s growing energy needs, and focusing more on finding renewable energy sources in the regions where Google consumes energy.

“Trying to navigate all those individual markets can be a challenge sometimes,” Palmer said. “You really have to tailor the approach to each individual market. It’s our hope that it can become a lot easier.”



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