Google is the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy on the planet. In 2017, it will buy enough renewable energy to reach 100% of its operations worldwide, including offices and data centres. To reach this milestone, Google has committed to buy 2.6 gigawatts of wind and solar energy to date — more than twice the 1.21 gigawatts it took to send Marty McFly back to the future in the iconic 1980s film. But the company is determined to take this further, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of an electricity grid which makes power available 24 hours a day without producing any carbon emissions whatsoever.
This year, Google will buy enough wind and solar electricity annually to account for every unit of electricity its operations consume, globally. That’s been achieved in a variety of ways: in the Nordics Google buys power in Sweden and uses the integrated nature of the Nordpool grid to deliver this electricity to its data center in Finland. In other countries, Google buys power directly from nearby renewable producers: in December, Google opened its latest data centre in Eemshaven, the Netherlands. It’s the company’s first to be 100% renewable from day one, from a wind farm in nearby Delfzijl.
“From an accounting perspective, we’re there,” says Marc Oman, EU Energy Lead at Google Global Infrastructure. But he also points out that Google still relies on the grid for stability. Sourcing sustainable energy for a company of Google’s scale is a jigsaw, and he’s already searching for the pieces to complete it. “What next? Work to make the grid itself zero carbon — for us this starts with buying more power closer to our data centres and diversifying into solar and other forms of renewable power like hydro or biomass.”
Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and in 2012 set the target of getting 100% of its energy from renewable sources. The company’s ultimate goal is to create a world where companies of every size and individual consumers have access to clean energy, something that requires a fundamental change in attitude. Oman recalls his initial discussions with utilities to try and get more renewables. “We said, ‘if you can’t deliver us clean energy we’re going to go out and talk directly to people who can build these plants,” and that’s what’s been happening since. Instead of buying from utilities, Google is increasingly buying locally, direct from small renewable energy developers.
The wind farm in Delfzijl is just one example of that strategy. In 2014 Google formed a consortium with Dutch companies AkzoNobel, DSM and Philips to jointly source power directly from renewable energy projects in the Netherlands. The first agreement was inked in 2016 with a new community-owned cooperative of 4,000 people in Zeeland called Windpark Krammer. In aggregate, these power contracts will generate more than $3.5 billion in capital investment to get these projects built, the company adds.
Google is also a member of RE100, a coalition of global household names like IKEA, Nestlé and Swiss RE which are committed to using 100% renewable electricity. With 83 members from sectors as diverse as telecommunications, ICT, textiles, food, banking and insurance, there’s clearly a business case for changing to renewables.
Europe has been a key part of Google achieving its renewable energy goal thanks to a regulatory environment which facilitates Power Purchase Agreements, commonly known as PPAs. “In Europe we have the benefit of a fairly unified grid, we’re not really constrained by national borders,” says Oman. The Nord Pool energy spot market, the world’s first multinational exchange for trading electric power which covers most of Northern Europe, means Google can buy green power in Sweden and use it in Finland.
In addition, the deregulated energy market in Europe has made projects like Delfzijl possible. “Since the mid-nineties, anyone has been entitled to purchase directly from producers,” says Oman. “Things are much more difficult in the US,” he adds, “In some states you can only buy from a single company and the power price is tariff-based.”
Commissioner Šefčovič’s latest recommendation for the energy landscape is also positive for sustainability, Oman adds. “It will help corporates in general to have even greater direct access to renewable power,” he says. “We’re very happy we’ve been able to do this for ourselves but we want others to do it too.”
The reasons aren’t just environmental. Google’s business depends on energy. In 2015, it’s operations consumed 5.7 terawatt-hours of electricity. Data centres to run services like Search, Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and Google Cloud require a reliable and constant supply of electricity. Electricity is one of the largest costs of running a data centre, so a predictably priced electricity supply is vital. Renewables used to be an expensive option, but over the last six years, the levelized cost of wind and solar has dropped 60% and 80%, respectively.
The world’s appetite for information is expanding exponentially. The systems that support this need vast amounts of electricity. For the planet’s future, it’s critical that companies like Google take the lead in making sure this energy comes from sources like wind, water and sun. The Internet has transformed the way Europeans live their lives: forward-thinking companies like those in RE100 will ensure future generations can enjoy those changes as well.