Google Wants to Show Why the Cloud Means Bigger is Greener

Google Wants to Show Why the Cloud Means Bigger is Greener

Google's Gmail spells trouble for the U.S. Postal Service and, if you're not careful, it can be a risky place to store your data. Aside from that, Gmail is good for the rest of us -- and, importantly, for the planet.

Indeed, cloud-based computing -- the way Google, Amazon, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Facebook and others provide you with data storage and software from their servers -- turns out to be a great way to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions... if those companies run their businesses right.

That's because in computing, as in so many other industries, scale drives efficiency. Bigger is greener.

That, at least, is my takeaway (as they say in the tech world) from a conversation this week with Urs Hölzle, a top Google executive who oversees company operations, particularly its data centers.

Urs (rhymes with Coors), who is 48, left an academic job in 1999 to become one of the first 10 people hired by Google. Smart move. He did so, he told me, because after meeting founders Larry Page and Sergie Brin, he decided that "they were very clue-ful." Huh? "Most of the people starting Internet companies then were clueless," Urs explained.

A computer scientist with a Stanford PhD, Urs wasn't an energy guy. But he had worked on processor architecture and understood engineering and operations. "My first job was making Google scalable," he said. Google's first servers, which the company leased, were terribly inefficient, he found. "The manufacturer had saved a few cents and it was costing us tens of dollars per server," he said. Buildings housing the servers, which need constant cooling, were wasteful, too.

Since then, energy use has become an obsession for Google, Urs says. The company designs its own servers and data centers. "We've saved, easily, over $1 billion for Google," he says.

Lately, environmental groups, notably Greenpeace International, have put a spotlight on the data centers run by consumer-facing tech giants. In a report called "How Dirty Is Your Data?", Greenpeace International said: "If the Internet was a country, it would rank fifth for the amount of electricity usage, just below Japan and above Russia." Yikes! Greenpeace ranked Google as the second-best of the big Internet companies, behind Yahoo. Google was penalized for keeping lots of information about its operations secret.

In September, presumably under pressure from NGOs, the company disclosed its carbon footprint for the first time. Google said:

We generated a total of 1.46 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Without efficiency measures in our data centers our footprint would have been about twice as big. By purchasing and generating renewable energy, as well as buying high-quality carbon offsets, we bring our carbon impact to zero.

To put that in context: the electricity used by Google during a year is enough to power 200,000 homes, according to this report in New York Times..

Breaking its energy usage down further, the company also said:

To provide you with Google products for a month -- not just search, but Google+, Gmail, YouTube and everything else we have to offer -- our servers use less energy per user than a light left on for three hours.

Those figures do not include the electricity drawn by the personal computers, tablets and smart phones that are displaying the information from Google.

Unlike many big companies, Google goes well beyond efficiency in its effort to limit its environmental footprint.

The company buys energy from low-carbon sources–about 30 percent of its energy this year. In Iowa, for example, the company signed a long-term agreement to purchase 114 MW of electricity from wind farm developed by NextEra. It made a similar wind-power deal with Next Era in Oklahoma to power its data center there. (Not literally, since electrons flow together on the grid, but by buying power from wind farms, Google gives developers access to financing they need.)

Some critics, including Greenpeace, say Google should build its data centers in places with lots of clean power. Google, Apple and Facebook all have data centers in North Carolina, where the grid relies heavily on coal. But locating data centers requires tradeoffs. "Climate is important, but so is construction costs, cost of land, availability of labor, taxes, is it close to users? -- all these things," Urs said.

To reduce its footprint further, Google buys carbon offsets, "ranging from landfill gas projects in Caldwell County, N.C., and Steuben County, NY, to animal-waste management systems in Mexico and Brazil," according to the company's blog. Google says it has been climate neutral since 2007.

Makani Power captures high-altitude wind Beyond that, Google and its philanthropic arm, Google.org, have invested in an array of clean energy companies, ranging from the Atlantic Wind Connection, which aims to move electricity generated offshore to cities on the east coast, to Clean Power Finance, which provides financing for rooftop solar, to Makani Power, which is developing airborne wind turbines.

All of this has left Google open to the criticism that it should focus on its core business, and not on energy and climate. The business case for buying green energy or carbon offsets is fuzzy at best, and some of the company's venture investments will surely go bust.

But Google, like many big companies, depends on the trust of its consumers. Reputation matters, and while no one is going to switch to Gmail for environmental reasons, the fact that Google is doing its best to tackle the climate issue is reassuring to people like me.

Said Urs: "We want to make sure that people understand that using Google is not a problematic thing." That's understood. And clue-ful.