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How Google Became The World’s Largest Corporate Buyer Of Renewable Energy

And it’s a lot of renewables: The company uses as much energy as the entire city of San Francisco.

In rural Grady County, Oklahoma, a large wind farm–generating as much power as around 30,000 homes use–probably wouldn’t exist without Google. The same is true for a sprawling solar farm in the desert in Chile, and a wind farm now under construction in Norway.

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In each project, and a total of 20 wind and solar projects around the world, Google made long-term commitments to buy the power produced (in some cases, all of it), enabling developers to get funding to add new renewable power to the grid. The commitment totals 2.6 gigawatts of energy, making Google the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy.

The company says that in 2017, it will buy enough renewables to account for its entire electricity use (though its data centers are still also plugged into the grid, where they use coal and natural gas power, as well). That’s a big deal; in 2015, to run the data centers that let you check email and watch YouTube, and to power its own offices, Google consumed nearly as much energy as the city of San Francisco did over the year.

Other companies, such as Apple, are also close to a “100% renewable” goal of buying as much renewable electricity as the power they use. But because Google uses so much more electricity, it’s also buying more renewables.

Google signed its first power purchase agreement, a long-term contract to buy from a wind farm in Iowa, in 2010. That farm produces 114 megawatts of power; now the company is committed to buying nearly 23 times more renewable energy than that.

“The significant reduction in price of renewables is one of the reasons that we’ve been able to really scale this program,” says Gary Demasi, director of operations for Google’s data center energy and location strategy. Over the last six years, the cost of wind power dropped 60%; solar power became 80% cheaper.

“Frankly, one of the reasons why we do this is because it makes business sense from a cost perspective,” he says. Data centers use an enormous amount of energy, and the cost of natural gas and coal fluctuates over time; the cost of solar and wind can be locked into a long-term contract and give predictability as the company makes financial plans.

When the company says it’s “reaching 100% renewable energy” in 2017, that doesn’t mean data centers will be directly connected to solar or wind. The space needed for a sprawling wind or solar farm is far bigger than a data center, and the windiest or sunniest places might are often not the best place to build a data center.

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“Unfortunately, the places where it makes sense to put data centers to serve our users effectively are not always the same places where it makes sense to build large-scale renewable energy, and so we can’t always combine those two things,” says Demasi. “They have a very different set of location factors.”

Even if a solar farm was next door to a data center, it couldn’t provide power all of the time. So its data centers are connected to the grid, the company just buys the same amount of extra renewable energy as those data centers use from non-renewable sources. And as much as possible, though, Google tries to support data centers with new renewable energy projects that are plugged into the same grid. And when that doesn’t work near a particular data center, the company advocates for change.

“We don’t simply accept the status quo,” he says. “We work very hard to try to create a market where we can really embrace renewable energy and makes it available to companies like Google.”

They’re also trying to provide an example for other corporations. Since Google’s first power purchase agreement in 2010, it’s become more common for companies to seek out renewable power, or commit to 100% renewable energy through programs like RE100.

In 2012, there were roughly 100 megawatts of corporate power purchase agreements; by 2014, there were 1.18 gigawatts. By 2015, there were 3.25 gigawatts of corporate PPAs, and corporations were buying more wind power than utilities were.

Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that in order to meet corporate goals for renewable energy, approximately 60 gigawatts of new wind and solar will have to be built by 2025. It’s one of the ways that corporations can help lower the U.S. carbon footprint even if progress from the federal government slows or reverses.

Ultimately, Google wants the entire grid to change. “We would like to see the grid move toward a zero carbon grid,” Demasi says.

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[Photos: via Google]

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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