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Leon Kaye headshot

Powered By 100% Renewables, Google Sets a New Business Standard

By Leon Kaye

The constant fretting over the Donald Trump administration’s impact on the clean-energy sector and climate change mitigation may be seriously exaggerated, based on the progress one “establishment” company has made. This week, Google announced that all of its operations, including offices and data centers, will be powered 100 percent by renewables next year.

Urs Hölzle, Google’s vice president of technical infrastructure, said the company will be able to reach this milestone because it purchases renewable power directly: This is no achievement done by using other channels, such as renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Google has been aggressive on this front over the past several years, starting with its first wind power contract, a 2010 agreement to buy all of the electricity from a 114-megawatt wind farm in Iowa. Since then, the deals accumulated, including a recent 236-megawatt wind power contract that powers its data centers in Europe, the company says.

Now, Google bills itself as the largest corporate buyer of renewable power, with over 2.6 gigawatts (2,600 megawatts) of solar and wind power under contract.

Those investments result in what Google estimates is total spending of $3.5 billion worldwide in infrastructure -- two-thirds of that amount happening here in the U.S. Those funds in turn add millions of dollars in taxes to local governments’ coffers, as well as copious amounts of revenues in rural areas.

Meanwhile, renewables have fallen in price: Hölzle said the costs of installing and operating renewable power installations fell by as much as 80 percent since 2010. Smarter technologies also helped Google meet this renewables goal, as the company insists its data centers are 50 percent more efficient than the industry average.

More companies and government agencies are investing in renewables as both their increased efficiency and decreased costs make them cost-competitive with conventional sources of energy. But Google is far ahead of this pack. Data provided in a Google white paper shows the tech giant is far ahead of the organizations that round out the largest purchasers of renewables in the U.S.

Amazon is a distant second, with about 1 gigawatt of investments in solar and wind. The U.S. Department of Defense, Microsoft and Facebook round out the top five largest spenders on renewable power.

Google’s sustainability agenda is hardly limited to renewables. Earlier this fall, the company announced a “moonshot” initiative that seeks to make its data centers and the rest of its operations zero waste. More of the company’s oft-maligned Street View cars are fitted with air pollution sensors in order to gauge air-quality data. The company’s satellite data has also proven to become an effective tool in the global fight against overfishing.

While politicians deny climate change in order to boost their campaign funds and distract citizens who are nervous and skittish about the future, companies like Google charge ahead and are adapting to a 21st-century reality.

To that end, The Economist, long the leading voice of a global free market economy, acknowledges that while we do not know how exactly climate change will change the planet, investment in renewables such as solar and wind are an insurance policy to hedge against such future threats.

Furthermore, while petroleum has been cheap for over two years now, the only thing we can predict about oil and gas prices is that they can soar or slump on a dime. In the event energy prices spike – and it will not take much for a volatile event in the Middle East, Russia or East Asia to rile global markets – Google and other companies will be sitting pretty.

Google’s success with renewables will be one reason why they will continue to scale and fall in price, as companies become more comfortable in such investments -- whether or not Trump is in office for the next four or eight years.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye