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Practical Magic

Lessons from Google’s clean energy agenda

Wind turbines spin near Google's Eemshaven, Netherlands data center. 

Wind turbines spin near Google's Eemshaven, Netherlands data center. Courtesy of Google

When I think about the list of companies defining the field of corporate renewable energy procurement — and that continues to do so — tech giant Google is at the top of my list.

Sure, technically speaking Amazon is the world’s largest clean power buyer, with 10 gigawatts of capacity at its disposal as of April and an estimated 232 projects globally.

By comparison, Google has been responsible for more than 60 projects since 2010, for a combined impact of 7 gigawatts — enough to juice up more than 5.9 million homes. That’s still a massive amount, especially when you consider Amazon generates almost twice the annual revenue of its cloud computing rival — and that it supports a complex real world distribution network. Google is still adding capacity at a fast pace: In 2021, it procured about 1.3 GW in clean power, an expansion of about 25 percent. 

But to consider only Google’s procurement power vastly underappreciates the influence the company is having on the broader clean energy transition, particularly as it relates to corporate involvement. Perhaps its most important contribution to the dialogue of the moment is the company’s push to use 24/7 carbon-free energy across its global operations by 2030 — and to compel others to embrace that goal. That means actually using clean energy every day, everywhere. Today, most companies (including Google) that have declared they’re running on 100 percent renewable energy can do so because they are matching their electricity usage with purchases of solar, wind, hydro, nuclear or other forms of power generation that don’t produce carbon emissions. It doesn’t mean, however, that the electrons serving their facilities are actually carbon-free. 

Google’s carbon-free energy strategy, announced two years ago in September, is pushing toward that vision — one in which electricity demand is matched with carbon-free supply every hour, every day. "I would say I think we’re making good and steady progress so far compared to our 2030 goal, mainly on building the capacity for our clean energy portfolio," said Maud Texier, global head of clean energy and carbon development, global infrastructure, at Google, when I spoke with her in early July.

Specifically, in 2021, Google reports it operated at 66 percent carbon-free energy, where measures "the degree to which our electricity consumption on a given regional grid is matched with carbon-free energy on an hourly basis," according to a blog published by Amanda Peterson Corio, global head of data center for Google, in late June. That’s 5 percent higher than 2019, but 1 percent lower than 2020. The data center with the highest percentage for 2021 (97 percent) was in Iowa; the one with the lowest percentage was in Singapore (4 percent).

Maud Texier, Google

Maud Texier, global head of clean energy and carbon development, global infrastructure, at Google. Courtesy of Google

To get there, Google is pioneering new contract approaches, such as the 10-year arrangement it signed in mid-June with Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), a community-owned organization that serves 13 communities in Santa Clara County, California. The retail energy offering includes an unusual service level agreement that calls for SVCE to match Google’s demand with carbon-free energy for at least 92 percent "of all hours in the year." The source of that electricity will include wind, solar, geothermal, battery energy storage and other resources.

"The SVCE 24/7 carbon-free energy service with Google serves as a model for how large commercial energy customers and energy providers can work together to further advance clean, carbon-free electricity on the grid, coupled with electrification efforts in the local community," said SVCE CEO Girish Balachandran, in a statement.

The goal, Texier related, is to make this sort of contract simpler and more replicable not just for data centers and related facilities but for more traditional commercial and industry customers that have larger load profiles.

But matching consumption isn’t enough.

Making this possible will be some of Google’s other cutting-edge investments at its new all-electric campus. First opened in May, the inaugural building at the site, Bay View, features a unique solar skin roof that optimizes on-site generation, while the ventilation systems rely 100 percent on outside air (compared with the 20 to 30 percent number boasted by a typical campus).

The campus also boasts what is being described as the largest geothermal heating and cooling infrastructure in North America. And this isn’t the only place it’s using geothermal. In Nevada, the company is teaming up with Fervo Energy to use geothermal power as a resource for its data centers  — and artificial intelligence is central to the management plan. 

Google Director of Energy Michael Terrell explained in a May 2021 blog: "Using fiber-optic cables inside wells, Fervo can gather real-time data on flow, temperature, and performance of the geothermal resource. This data allows Fervo to identify precisely where the best resources exist, making it possible to control flow at various depths. Coupled with the AI and machine learning development outlined above, these capabilities can increase productivity and unlock flexible geothermal power in a range of new places." 

A similar partnership between Google and Engie will use the Google’s cloud-based AI and analytics resources to optimize wind resources and help the utility better forecast wind production, with a view toward optimizing Engie’s wind portfolio in short-term power markets.

I think we’re making good and steady progress so far compared to our 2030 goal, mainly on building the capacity for our clean energy portfolio.

Another project that should be of particular note for commercial energy buyers is Google’s test of a backup battery installation at its data center in Belgium. The batteries are 2.75 megawatts in capacity, roughly the same impact as a big diesel generator. When they aren’t being used for backup, the intention is to use them to contribute to grid balancing.

"For us, it’s really about testing two different aspects of the technology," Texier said. "On one side, there’s really a technical testing and validation component: how those batteries can be integrated into our architecture in a reliable way, and how can they work to replace our diesel generator in the event of an outage. So this is really about how do we integrate those technologies physically into our architecture. And the second piece for us will be more from an operations perspective: How do we demonstrate that this battery can deliver value to the grid?"

Texier declined to say when the technology would move from testing to commercial deployment but did elaborate on the deliberate location of Belgium. The market’s regulatory structure and grid policies, she said, made it one of the least risky places to put the concept to work.

In many cases, Google is publishing the methodology behind projects of this nature, so that other companies can benefit from its successes and failures. As the test results become available, it will share details about the battery installation with the Open Compute Project, which is meant to advance data center infrastructure approaches. As mentioned earlier, it already offers granular details of its carbon-free energy progress. 

Like other cloud service providers, Google is developing an expansive array of tools and resources that other businesses working on carbon-free energy strategies can use to baseline their Scope 2 footprint and plan for a future that includes carbon-free energy transactions. Not surprisingly, Google is pitching the relatively lower emissions profile of certain Google Cloud regions as one way for companies to reduce their own footprints. A customer perk, if you will.

It has also created a program, Google Cloud Ready — Sustainability, used to validate applications that can contribute to corporate sustainability goals. "Programs like Google Cloud Ready for Sustainability accelerate access to solutions that can drive ESG transformations, such as applying climate-related risk factors alongside traditional financial transformations," said Rochelle March, head of ESG product at Dun & Bradstreet, in a statement.

Texier said the biggest challenge today for Google is navigating the system-level transformation that’s happening as it keeps increasing its clean energy portfolio.

Collectively, we need to pick up the pace. And this expands beyond Google’s own needs to the amount of energy required to support electrification projects and new consumers, Texier noted. "So, I think this is a mix of what can we do better at a high-level process perspective to facilitate this access to sites and then development. And then from an infrastructure perspective, how do we prepare the grid to be able to host the systems? I think for us this is really the biggest challenge today, and that’s why we’re working also not just within the Google portfolio, but across coalitions, market development and market designs to try to unlock those barriers for clean energy projects."

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