(3Bl Media?Jusmeans) — Earlier this month, software and search giant Google announced that it would run its operations entirely on renewable energy by the end of next year. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider the many data centers with billions of people connecting to them, it’s actually about as much power as the entire city of San Francisco, with its population of over 800,000, uses. For those who like numbers, they used 5.7 terawatt-hours in 2015.
However, you won’t see sprawling fields of solar panels and windmills surrounding every Google facility. That’s because, for the most part, that’s not how renewables work. That’s the image many people have—a log cabin on an isolated mountain top, miles from anything, with a couple of solar panels on the roof connected to a stack of old car batteries.
Most people, and large businesses in particular, that buy renewable power, do so through the grid. That’s to say, they buy an amount of renewable energy, equivalent to what they consume, although the actual electrons, that light their lights or run through their computers, could come from anywhere, including dirty coal plants. That gives them the assurance that they will receive the power they need, anytime, day or night, windy or clam. Some critics have suggested that this is somehow, “less green” than connecting directly, but it’s not. The point is that the same amount of power is being produced and consumed somewhere by renewable sources. That is power that otherwise would have been produced by whatever the power company saw fit to use at any given time, based on price, availability and various other factors.
While today, that could include coal and natural gas sources, that fraction will likely decrease for three reasons. First, renewable costs will continue to fall, making them the “fuel source of choice” for utilities. Next, mass storage will continue to be incorporated, allowing more renewables to be integrated into the grid by making their intermittency less of an issue. Finally, as the grid continues to modernize, and become smarter, power will be instantly dispatchable, from one area where the wind might be blowing to other areas where it isn’t.