Google’s green campus promising but ‘carbon free’ act demands more

The Google Bay View campus in California is a key addition to the company’s lofty ambition to run its offices and data centres on clean energy; but the cost may be huge, suggests CEO Sundar Pichai

An aerial view of the Google Bay View campus in Mountain View, California

Last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced what was called the most ambitious corporate commitment towards decarbonisation ever– to run its every office and data centre on electricity from clean sources 24×7 – setting a 2030 deadline.

Even though the ambition has been called a moonshoot by Google itself, that the company is serious about it is evident from Google Bay View, the company’s new 10-acre campus in Mountain View, California.

Located close to the San Francisco Bay coast, the three buildings that form the Google Bay View almost resemble the tents in a circus with peaks and slopes. The roofs of the buildings are lined with overlapping solar panels which are again covered with a metal – called Dragonscale – on the edges. According to Bloomberg, the solar panels are constructed with a unique textured glass to prevent glare and the canopies are designed to emit a soft, glowing light into the atria inside – this is popularly called the ‘Cathedral of Work’.

Built by Google to achieve its goal to reduce its carbon footprints, Bay View has pillars embedded into the ground to act as a geothermal battery that could store heat to warm the building and aid in water supply. Bay View is likely to be opened for a limited number of employees in January.

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“I wish we were at this moment a decade earlier…I’m worried and very anxious we’re losing time,” Pichai tells Bloomberg.

Even though Pichai says that achieving its goal of decarbonisation is a “bit stressful…because we don’t fully have all the answers to get there” the company seems to have soldiered on, its latest feat being having met 67 per cent of the electricity for its data centres from renewable sources on an hourly basis. This is a 6 per cent rise from the cut in fuel dependency the year before. Google’s data centres, home to its servers which run web searches and emails, consume almost 15.1 million megawatt-hours of power (as of 2020). Data centres in places like Oklahoma and Oregon run almost on 90 per cent renewable sources of energy.

Several tech giants have pledged to reduce their carbon footprints either by switching to clean energy or through carbon offsets (a credit given by companies to compensate for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mostly by giving money to emission-reducing projects). While Apple Inc. aims to achieve carbon neutrality (balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from atmosphere in carbon sinks), and Amazon has set a 2040 deadline, Google has gone a notch higher by vowing to go carbon free and only rely on clean energy.

To achieve it, the company needs to think beyond tapping solar energy for its data centres and find alternative sources of energy for centres which completely run on fossil fuels. And it has already begun looking at alternatives – Google is trying acquire technologies like lithium-ion battery storage, algorithms that predict wind patterns, and means to drill the earth surface to access geothermal wells.

“The ultimate solution is to get the power grids to carbon-free all the time,” Google’s director of energy Michael Terrel told Bloomberg, adding, “We still don’t know the path everywhere, and that’s really challenging.”

Pichai has also promised that Google’s climate work will create over 20,000 clean energy jobs and help several cities reduce their own carbon footprints, as well as try selling energy efficiency technologies. And at a time when Google employees have begun pitching for green business practices, Pichai tells the writing on the wall is clear – that businesses which do not go green will go obsolete.

“When I look at the younger generation, people who are teenagers now, I can’t see them making the choice to work for a company which they feel is polluting,” he tells Bloomberg.

Bay view campus was conceptualized in 2015 but Google had been toying with the idea to go carbon-free for some time. When the search engine started was growing popular around the turn of the century, the company, in a bid to cut down on the cost of its energy-consuming services like Gmail and YouTube began looking for cheaper alternatives of power.

“That was always really shocking when you looked at the bill,” Urs Holzle, a senior vice president and one of the first employees of the company told Bloomberg.

So, in 2007, the company installed a 1.6MW solar array atop its headquarters in California and began a programme to fund renewable project – REC – with an aim to keep their energy cost below that generated by coal.

The same year, Google had claimed that it has gone “carbon-neutral”.

The next few years saw Google making more strides in acquiring renewable energy – from making a power purchase agreement in 2010 for an 114MW wind farm in Iowa to setting a goal to buy enough excess renewables to cover the amount of fossil fuels it used two years later, a mission it accomplished in five years.

Even though Google signed 26 PPAs by 2017, the biggest challenge in tapping solar and wind energy, was to storing the power generated. The challenge was enormous especially when Google was growing by leaps and bounds – it added 15 new data centres for its consumers and cloud services between 2017 and 2020.

Michael Terrel says while his team in Belgium worked with a local power company to shift from diesel generators to huge lithium-ion batteries during power outages, Google is now finding ways to channel excess energy stored in the lithium-ion batteries to the local utility provider.

In Nevada, where one of Google’s data centre is based, the company has struck a deal to buy power with Fervo Energy, which is working on tapping geothermal energy.

That apart, Google engineers have also developed a tool called “carbon-intelligent computing platform” that schedules computing tasks during dips in energy use to conserve energy. Similarly software tasks such as adding a new term to Google Translate or encoding a YouTube video are put off till enough sunshine or wind is available.

The company has also developed computer models which could predict when the wind power will be the strongest.

In a huge deal, the company in May this year signed a 10-year contract with Virginia-based AES Crop to realize its goal to use clean energy 24×7. The project would cover 500MW of renewable projects owned by AES or the ones it plans to buy. According to Bloomberg the energy distributor relies not only on solar and wind generation but also on lithium-ion batteries to supply power to Google.

However, the future is not all rosy for Google, as it may have to take hard decisions in the long run. Google’s cloud business, a key priority of Pichai, for one, is likely to be affected by the company’s clean energy goals. The cloud business which is growing at more than 50 per cent a year, will require more energy that Google can provide without fossil fuels. So, when Google switches to renewable energy sources, it will be impossible for it to place it cloud centres anywhere it wants as the cloud customer would want their data stored nearby.

“There will be sacrifices we will have to make,” Pichai tells Bloomberg. “It may lead to some services we can’t build,” he adds.

 

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