Google Aims for 100% Renewable Power Next Year

(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.

Google’s sizable commitment will make a difference in several ways. Being “the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world,” says Joe Kava, Google’s senior vice president of technical infrastructure, is “good for the economy, good for business and good for our shareholders.”

It’s also good for the planet. By making numerous large-scale deals for wind and solar power, Google has helped to lower prices by creating additional demand for the equipment.

Jonathan Koomey, who studies the energy-efficiency of computing at Stanford, told the NY Times that a big consumer like Google “moves the needle,” by invoking economies of scale. “Every time you double production, you reduce the cost of solar by about 20 percent. Wind goes down 10 to 12 percent,” he said.

Google obtains their renewable power for their data centers through a number of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) where they commit to buying a certain amount of power at a predetermined rate. The commitment gives suppliers the confidence to invest in the equipment, knowing that the revenue will be there. At the same time, the fixed rate gives the customer the certainty that their energy costs will be stable and predictable throughout the term of the agreement.

On their website, Google says they have invested over $1.5 billion on renewable projects, which will ultimately develop a capacity of 2.5 GW. This number will need to grow to reach the newly announced target. According to Kava, 95% of that will come from wind.


Image credit: iStock