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How Google is making the transition to 100% renewable energy

With renewable energy suppliers, domestic batteries and even solar roof tiles, it’s becoming more feasible for homeowners and small businesses to make the transition away from fossil energy. But how would a larger business – say, Google – move to 100% renewables? The search giant now predicts it will achieve this feat in 2017, and has shared the story in a new white paper.

With billions of Google searches a day, 400 hours of footage uploaded to YouTube each minute, not to mention maps, email, documents and photos, Google’s energy demand is high. “In 2015, we consumed 5.7 terawatt-hours of electricity across all of our four of our operations, which is nearly as much electricity as San Francisco used in the same year”, states the document released this week. As you can imagine, acquiring this energy from wind and solar sources has required innovation and creativity.

Like most major businesses of today, Google understands its impact when it comes to energy demand and emissions, and recognises that the private sector has “an important role to play in driving robust, sustained action to transition to a clean energy economy.” So part of the motivation for this transition has been to contribute to the “urgent global imperative” of reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Image: Flickr / Ed Suominen CC BY-NC 2.0
Solar and wind power account for most of Google’s renewable energy input. Image: Flickr / Ed Suominen CC BY-NC 2.0

Yet that’s only part of the story. As Urs Hölzle, Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure outlines in a blog post on the topic, “electricity is one of the largest components of our operating expenses at our data centers”. A quick search of commodity prices shows that things have been significantly more volatile since the turn of the century, and it doesn’t take an MBA to figure out that a business reliant on the continual input of any finite materials will be more exposed to risks associated with that volatility. From extreme weather to political instability and supply shortages, more businesses are realising that putting all your eggs in one basket just won’t work out in the long term. Or as Hölzle puts it, “Ensuring that we have a cost-competitive, predictably priced electricity supply is an important part of running our business in a responsible way.”

The authors of the white paper go into some more depth on this aspect, offering two points that should send a clear message to other businesses considering a transition to renewables. Firstly, that renewables are cost-effective, and are getting even cheaper. After the costs of wind and solar fell by 60% and 80% since 2010 respectively, renewable energy has become the “cheapest form of energy available on the grid” in some areas. Secondly, Google underline the sentiment that investing in solar is a strategic advantage, stating that since “inputs like wind and sunlight are essentially free…having no fuel input for most renewables allows us to eliminate our exposure to fuel-price volatility and to smooth our financial planning over the long term”. The company is firmly backing renewables as the only way to run its operations in an unpredictable economy.

As well as a detailed overview of the methods used to increase renewable energy use, another key theme of the announcement is the way in which Google aim to stimulate broader renewables uptake. Believing that “offsets were only a temporary solution”, the tech giant looks to support bringing new clean energy onto the grid” and therefore insists that all energy projects be “additional”. Instead of piggybacking on existing renewables infrastructure, Google seeks to purchase energy from not yet constructed generation facilities, supporting new technologies and stimulating regional economies. It’s all part of increasing the size of the pie, and increasing access to renewables.

How does this relate to Google’s public ambition on the circular economy? The company only became a Global Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2015, but circular economy principles are already at work in Google’s data centres, retaining embedded energy, materials and labour found in server hardware. With innovation spanning so many areas, there’s potential for tech to support smarter use of energy and materials, for instance with Deepmind artificial intelligence able to reduce energy bills by 40%. Moving to 100% renewable energy is the latest step in the right direction, one that offers not just benefits for Google, but promise for an economy powered by renewable energy.

Further viewing – check out this video on Google’s circular economy activities:

Lead image: Google

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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