How Google Became the World’s Largest Corporate Purchaser of Renewable Energy

renewable energy
Google is leading the clean-energy revolution like no other company. It has invested in 22 renewable energy projects to date. In fact, Google is the biggest corporate purchaser globally of renewable energy, with a hand in utility-scale wind and solar projects that span the globe. Google has a goal to power 100 percent of its operations from renewable energy, and it is well on its way.

“We’re really trying to lead this transition to a cleaner energy economy,” said Michael Terrell, principal for energy and infrastructure at Google. “It’s transforming anyone who touches the energy space. It’s not just about data centers or tech companies.”

The Google approach to renewable energy is not unlike how many utilities purchase power. It often enters into power purchase agreements: long-term financial agreements, typically with wind farms, to buy power. The projects that Google has been involved with span the globe, including in Sweden, Iowa, Oklahoma and California, along with a recent $12 million investment in the largest solar energy project in South Africa.

Google announced a few months ago that it will also invest $12 million in Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya, which will be the largest wind project in the continent upon completion and Google’s second major renewable energy investment in Africa. The project helps Kenya reach its goal of increasing its grid capacity by 5 gigawatts in 10 years for greater energy independence, and it’s expected to save the country $113 million annually in imported fuel costs. The Lake Turkana Wind Farm is the largest single private investment project in Kenya’s history. Google is truly making monumental shifts in how it is investing and spending its money.

Although there has been a flurry of renewable energy project announcements recently by Google, its commitment to renewable energy is not new. It installed the largest corporate solar panel installation of its kind (1.7 megawatts) in 2007 at its Mountain View, California, campus. In addition, Google also operates a 990-kilowatt cogeneration unit powered by local landfill gas to produce heat and electricity for its corporate campus.

Google states it has two criteria for bringing pilot programs to its campus: It must make good business sense and have long-term potential to transform the industry.

Google certainly isn’t the first company to make corporate purchases of renewable energy, but it is certainly the largest. Hewlett-Packard, Kaiser Permanente, Bloomberg, Dow Chemical and Amazon Web Services have all made recent announcements.

Google is even testing solar-powered drones in an effort to beam 5G Internet from these drones, using millimeter waves to transmit data. Project Sunbender has the potential to transmit iInternet from space, with speeds 40 time faster than 4G technology.

Although Google’s commitment to renewable energy has certainly boosted brand equity for the company, it can have its hiccups. Google needs to operate data centers, which require a significant amount of electricity and operate around the clock. It has claimed that its data centers run on 100 percent renewable energy since 2012. But a recent study by Lux Research shows that data centers use a lot of electricity generated from coal, debunking clean-energy claims by Google, Amazon, Apple and other companies.

“They aren’t doing as much as they claim about sourcing their electricity,” said Ory Zik, Lux vice president of analytics.

All the renewable energy announcements leave me wondering why Google has such a strong commitment to renewables. The energy-intensive nature of its service makes it logical that the company would put effort into greener solutions. It is one of the simplest and most effective ways to make its operations more sustainable. Renewable energy also fits well with the Google brand, which is firmly rooted in innovation.

Image Credit: Flickr/naql

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Sarah Lozanova is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Triple Pundit, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.

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