Clean Power Google-5

Published on February 12th, 2016 | by Joshua S Hill

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Understanding Google’s Goal To Be Powered By 100% Renewable Energy

February 12th, 2016 by  

Google has made a big deal of its desires to be powered by 100% renewable energy, and in a recent blog post, the company has explained exactly what it means by that goal.

Gary Demasi, Google Director of Data Center Energy & Location Strategy, took to the Google Green Blog this week to explain exactly what Google means when it says it wants to be 100% “powered by renewables”:

“Fundamentally we mean this: Google purchases, on an annual basis, the same volume (MWh) of renewable energy as the volume of MWh of energy that we consume for our operations.”

This isn’t necessarily a ground-breaking explanation, but Demasi goes on to “unpack what this means” by digging deeper into the actual mechanics of Google’s plans. Demasi actually breaks down the reality of purchasing renewable power relatively well, explaining how there is no way to tell if “the energy from wind farm X is going to supply data center Y.” Furthermore, Demasi explains why Google can’t simply go off-grid entirely: Not only is it not economic or practical sense for large data center facilities, but renewable energy projects are most-often developed “miles away” from where Google’s data centers currently reside.

There is of course the intermittency issue, as well, which for a data center intent on providing guaranteed 100% up-time would prove utterly useless.

Google-5

Avoiding intermittency problems is one of the reasons Google relies on purchasing renewable electricity and using electricity provided through the grid. “For example,” Demasi explains, “our Iowa utility, MidAmerican Energy, has a portfolio of energy generation that is comprised of 40% wind and takes advantage of a large regional network to manage any variability in its system or in an individual wind resource. Similarly, in Europe, the energy provider for our Finland data center purchases renewable energy in Sweden and uses the Nordpool regional electricity grid to manage variability and deliver us consistent 24×7 power.”

So Google strives to adhere to three criteria when purchasing renewable energy: additionality; bundled physical energy and its “renewable certification”; and proximity.

One can see some of these criteria at work in recent purchases made by Google, including the massive 842 MW renewable energy purchase which included investments in projects in the US, Sweden, and Chile.

Google-4

Google may need to readdress some of its figures, however, in the wake of a recent study which found data centers use 30% more coal than previously estimated.

“Our team of data scientists analysed the North American electric grid, improving the accuracy of carbon reporting by a factor of 80,” said Ory Zik, Lux Research Vice President of Analytics and the team leader of Lux’s energy benchmarking. “The results show that many sites are far more reliant on coal than reported – notably, they include many large data centers.”

“For example, we found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven data centers, in particular at its Berkeley County, S.C. location.”

 

Lux Research-2

The whole blog post is worth a read for anyone interested in the intricacies of a company like Google aiming towards 100% renewable energy.

 
 
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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.



  • Dimwit Lamb

    This is essentially ‘net metering’ and rapidly becoming old school. As Omega points out below, it is an accounting task, allocating ‘green electrons’ from ‘coal electrons’ without having the impact of decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. Going forward, we need to go on a ‘self-consumption’ metric for businesses (for example, Apple considers the timing of the PPA renewables delivery to the grid match to their load), utilities and nations. For high renewables penetration, self consumption is harder, requires energy storage, but it doesn’t make any sense to invest in a bunch of renewables and then back them up with natural gas peakers and transmission bringing coal generated electricity in from Idaho.

    • Bob_Wallace

      If a company invests specifically in renewable generation they block the possibility of more fossil fuel being built to serve their needs.

      Self consumption isn’t something we should be pushing right now. Storage is too expensive to allow companies to run on only what they produce. Given that reality most companies will do nothing and stick with the grid.
      Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.

      • Dimwit Lamb

        You’re out-of-date by about 5 years. The performance and cost battles of wind and solar have been won, and
        now we need to start working on the infrastructure and market changes
        that allow us to get from the 2020 30% to the 2030 50%. In today’s structures, if a company invests in PPAs, almost an equal capacity of natural gas peakers are being added, so they are NOT blocking, but rather permanently growing the footprint of fossil fuel infrastructures, making it harder for alternatives like storage to compete. Storage is NOT too expensive if allowed to compete at a fair market, without competing against ‘capacity payments’ and limits on market pricing and without subsidizing, flat rates that don’t reflect the true cost of time of use.

        I don’t know whether residential self-consumption is the right path (for cost, grid management, and safety reasons), but we cannot keep going net metering (somebody sooner or later has to pay for the infrastructure, see Hawaii), and so we need to start putting the structures in place to motivate smarter systems, such as use of storage (which cost and performance is great today and trends excellent), elimination of flat rate tariffs. Before 2020, the very near future, individuals doing ‘the right thing’, solar + EVs will be creating the highest costs on the grid without storage.

        On a country level, countries like Denmark wouldn’t be able to have 50% wind if they weren’t exporting it to Norway in a virtual storage using Norway’s hydro. Germany wouldn’t be able to add renewables at all without exporting it to France and then replacing it at night and periods of no wind with France’s nukes.

  • Omega Centauri

    I think there really is a question about the net effect of many of these actions. If a company is supplied by a utility with a renewable energy quota, and that company opts for 100% renewable, does the utility simply use let those renewables count against the quota? If the answer is yes, then the net change in renewables on that grid would be zero, i.e. the utility simply lets the rest of the grid be less green so that it balances out. If on the other hand, the utility doesn’t limit itself to the quota (i.e. it buys/builds more RE than it would have, because they have extra demand for RE or its cheaper), then it has a net effect. Also if because there are major players demanding renewables, perhaps the legistors will raise the renewables quotas. None of which is easy to answer.

    • Ross

      In the Google case their blog says the criteria they “strive” for are:

      Additionality, Bundled physical energy and its “renewable certification”, and Proximity.

      • Omega Centauri

        Which says nothing about the utilities response. The utility could say google has 500MW of renewables, therefore I can build/contract for 500MW less and still meet my obligation.

        • Bristolboy

          You raise a good point and unfortunately I can’t provide an answer.

          Although (and I know it is far fetched!) if all companies and other consumers of energy went for 100% renewable that wouldn’t matter!

          In the UK there are some companies who deliver 100% renewable energy and they “retire” the benefits so it is a net positive.

          Regardless of the above, the more companies who go for renewable (even if that is just “greenwashing”) the better.

  • JamesWimberley

    Google’s case is relatively simple as its business is an immaterial internet service provided from server farms. It buys in capital equipment, but the footprint of this is swamped. The exercise is much more difficult for a company like WalMart or Amazon that sells goods, as a full accounting of resource use involves a long supply chain. Generally if these try at all they seek to cover their own direct operations. But as we have seen from scandals over cobalt mining in the Congo, worker exploitation by Apple’s supplier Foxconn, and dangerous working conditions in textile factories in Bangladesh, it’s not so easy for first-world companies to outsource the responsibility as well as the manufacturing.

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