Google recently released a “policy roadmap” for getting to a 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) future for its operations by 2030. Unlike some other corporate roadmaps, Google went beyond talking solely about its own progress and plans for reducing carbon emissions. The document also addresses the circular relationships of advancing clean energy technology, market expansion and supporting sustainable consumer behavior.
Add in a dose of public policy assessment, and the roadmap reflects expertise frequently found in nonprofit, academic and governmental documents. That’s hardly serendipity since Google had a “grid supernerd” from Princeton at a media roundtable for the report’s release.
The Google roadmap starts in a natural place for its business — technology and clean energy — but it’s a launching point for any discussion, given that the global energy sector is responsible for 75 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which advocates improved energy policies for its thirty member and eight associated countries, has a roadmap of its own to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) does a good top-level review of the IEA report. Even as WRI commends some of IEA’s analyses and the focus on renewable energy replacement of fossil fuels, their review also calls out potential weaknesses. For example, WRI deems IEA’s report to have an overly dependent position on biomass fuels. Yes, biomass fuels are renewable, but they also have some serious tradeoffs, including their own large amount of carbon emissions and other hazards that negatively impact humans.
Pretty much any report from any company, NGO or government source is going to say that the world needs to free itself of fossil fuel use, coal being a common target for elimination — with good reason. For 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the electricity sector comes in a close second to transportation in the U.S. for carbon emissions. Coal makes up 54 percent of that amount, but only produces 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
In sustainability terms, that’s a pretty lousy return on investment.
While Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) didn’t heed that call for the proposed Build Back Better legislation, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) urged him to support it. The union has seen the handwriting on the wall and wants the clean energy industries to locate in coal-based communities so coal workers can move into those new jobs.
The WRI review, the Google roadmap and other reports acknowledge this need for equitable transitions, supported by public policy and investor funding. For example, WRI emphasized that wealthier countries need to move faster on coal elimination while helping those less developed reduce their dependency without devastating already fragile economies and environments.
In similar fashion, Google discusses some equity issues of transition in its report, noting its data center in Iowa is reliant on clean energy sources while a coal plant operates “down the road.” Google expresses the need to offer new job opportunities in communities where livelihoods are tied to legacy energy production. The company also cites repurposing a former coal-fired power plant in Alabama’s Jackson County. It’s an example of how policymakers can support beneficial conversion of carbon-producing sites already located near electrical infrastructure.
Even as it touts its successes, Google notes and analyzes its challenges. While its data center in Finland achieved 94 percent carbon-free energy in 2020, its Singapore site reached only 4 percent. What this global company faces with differences in geography, culture, governments and energy resource availability offers insight for others.
And that, frankly, is what a report like this should do. If a corporation is going to kill a digital tree (or, heaven forbid, a real one) to produce a document, let it be one that not only provides good PR, data and transparency, but also shares the lessons learned, the challenges at hand and the ideas that could make a positive difference.
In fact, if you read between the mile/kilometer markers of Google’s roadmap, you’ll find references to its collaboration with other companies, utilities and governments to set up clean-energy sources not only for itself, but also for other customers. In Taiwan, Google’s pursuit of clean energy led to the government amending its Electricity Act in 2017 to accommodate non-utility commercial buyers.
Businesses are customers, too, not just suppliers of goods and services. By joining in alliance with other companies, they create a market for clean energy. Competition may be core to corporate survival, but so is cooperation.
When business roadmaps become field guides, we’ll know we’ve arrived at our destination.
Image credit: Chris LeBoutillier via Unsplash