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Google Releases Details on its Carbon Footprint

Raz Godelnik
| Tuesday September 13th, 2011 | 0 Comments

Last Thursday Google released for the first time details on its carbon footprint. The figures themselves were interesting, but the fact that Google finally ditched its somewhat schizophrenic approach toward its climate impact was even more interesting. On one hand the company is a green leader in the IT industry that made a commitment already in 2007 to become carbon neutral. On the other hand, Google has been very secretive about its carbon footprint. Now it’s over. Google decided it’s feeling comfortable enough to show us the full monty.

Google said it emits 1.46 million tons of carbon annually, or 1.46 kg of CO2 per user. Most of it comes from Google’s data centers, which is quite obvious given that as Google explains “data centers are at the heart of everything we do.” The good news is that according to Google, these data centers are some of the most efficient in the world, using only 50% of the energy of most other data centers consume. If you’re still not sure how efficient Google’s servers are, Google explain the servers use less energy per user per month than a 60-watt light bulb left on for three hours.

The report is full of such comparisons. For example, did you know that doing 100 searches is equivalent to using a laptop for one hour, turning on a light for 28 minutes, or drinking 1.5 tablespoons of orange juice?  My favorite comparison is one year of using Gmail demands less energy than the one required to drink a bottle of wine (750 ml to be precise), stuffing a message in the bottle and tossing it in the ocean. All of these anecdotal comparisons don’t help much to evaluate the efficiency of Google’s operations, but they definitely make the report a little bit more accessible to readers, which is also important.

As Google explains, the best way to reduce their corporate footprint is to not use electricity in the first place. They do it by increasing the energy efficiency of their operations and by using more renewable energy. Last year 25 percent of Google’s energy came from renewable sources. This year Google expects it will jump to 30 percent and next year to 35 percent. Google is using various renewable resources, including solar energy, landfill gas and PPA agreements. According to Google their evaluation process of renewable energy technologies include two criteria: Making good business sense and having a long term potential to transform the industry.

When it comes to increasing the energy efficiency of its data centers, Google use concepts such as keeping the data centers warm so they can spend less on cooling, designing each data center element to operate at optimal efficiency, and cooling data center without using chillers. Google gives the example of its newest facility in Hamina, Finland, which was built in an old paper mill and includes an innovative seawater cooling system. You can learn more about it in the video below.

If you wonder whether Google is more focused on renewable energy or energy efficiency, the answer may surprise you. It’s renewable energy. Only last March, Bill Wheil, Google Energy Czar, said on the Climate One Forum on Cloud Computing: “We are not going to solve the climate problem via efficiency – we must move to cleaner sources of energy.” He is not alone. Greenpeace reached the same conclusion, mentioning on its ‘How Dirty is Your Data’ report, that “energy efficiency alone will, at best, slow the growth of the sector’s footprint.”

As I mentioned earlier Google committed in 2007 to be carbon neutral, and therefore whatever the company cannot reduce, it offsets. How much does it offset? It’s not clear from the report. We only learn that Google “makes sure to buy very high quality offsets to create lasting positive impact on the environment.”

This is not the only missing piece of information in the report. Although it is very detailed, the report is still missing some important pieces of the puzzle – for example, we don’t have past figures of Google’s carbon footprint to be able to evaluate the company’s progress. We also don’t know how much efficiency energy measures and renewable energy technologies helped in reducing the company’s footprint or which element made more difference so far.

Yet, what’s important here is that Google finally broke its silence. The common belief was that Google was afraid until now this sort of information will give competitors a clue to how the company runs its operations. It’s not clear what got Google to change their mind but frankly it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that Google chose the path of transparency. This is a path that every green leader has to take sooner or later and it’s encouraging to see that Google finally acknowledged it. Hopefully other companies in the industry will get the message, making sure our digital future will be a low-carbon one.

Image credit: BeeHive Tech, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder and CEO of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.


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