Google was only one of the image conscious companies who have chosen to disassociate themselves from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), but arguably the biggest and most high profile. One of their major complaints was with ALEC’s position on climate change and the need for renewable energy, among other conservative stances. But does Google practice what they preach? And are they doing it to save the planet or protect their own image with their young, hip target market?
A good indicator is found in a a publicly available position paper the company published titled, Google’s Green PPAs: What How and Why. In it, after some of the usual, obligatory preaching about how everyone has to go green, we find some rather frank talk about how solar and wind energy simply are not able to be trusted to power Google’s massive data centers. In fact, they are purposely located near some of those nasty, unsustainable coal and fossil fuel plants just to ensure they can keep the beast fed. (Emphasis added.)
Given that you can’t tell electrons where to go, how do you “use”—and show your use of—renewable energy? One solution is to not use the grid at all. After all, we could put the renewable project “behind the meter,” meaning that it would be on the same premises as our data center. This is what is happening when people put solar panels on their roofs. It is also what we have done on our main campus in Mountain View, California, where our 1.6 megawatt (MW) solar panel facility helps power our offices. But this is not feasible for Google data centers (or most companies’ data centers) for a number of interrelated reasons.
They go on to list some of these reasons, which are actually completely valid and familiar to Hot Air readers. But they also fly in the face of the stated reason for breaking with ALEC.
For one, the area necessary to harness sufficient energy to power a data center by either method is much larger than the actual area of a data center and its surrounding property. Also, neither the wind nor the sun are constantly available resources. They come and go with the weather, while Google’s data centers operate 24×7.1 No matter what, we’d need to be connected to the grid to access “conventional” power to accommodate our constant load. The plain truth is that the electric grid, with its mix of renewable and fossil generation, is an extremely useful and important tool for a data center operator, and with current technologies, renewable energy alone is not sufficiently reliable to power a data center.
There’s an awful lot of honest talk going on here, but in a backhanded fashion there is one more bit of goodness. In a separate section, the paper discusses why, at its corporate offices which do use solar, it makes no difference whether they put the solar panels behind the meter or on the grid. This is also true, but a clue is given as to why you would put them on the buildings.
In addition to these technical reasons why a behind-the-meter solution doesn’t work for Google, there is a larger, and perhaps more important reason: there is no appreciable difference between putting a wind farm or solar facility behind our meter or on the grid. At best the difference is one of appearance (Google would “look greener”) and at worst it reduces the impact of our investment because a project built in a less favorable location would generate less energy over its life.
That’s really the bottom line isn’t it? They flatly admit that it will probably cost them money to put the solar panels “behind the meter” on their site, and less overall energy will be produced, but it makes them look greener. This theory extends to how Google arranges to purchase their power. The paper discusses the well known issue of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and flatly admits that nobody can control where energy goes once it’s on the grid, but that you help the green energy movement (and look good in the process) by purchasing them, even if you’re really using “brown energy” from conventional sources. So, in addition to the fact that the government is making you do it, why would they be snapping up these RECs?
We then sell that power right back into the grid at the local, wholesale price. Today, because generic “grid” power is cheap and renewable power is relatively expensive, this may result in a slight net loss for Google, but we expect the contract to eventually make money as power gradually becomes more expensive over time. In any case, in the process of selling, we strip renewable energy credits (RECs) and keep them so that no one else can claim credit for the green aspect of our purchase.
The people running Google are not stupid. (If they were they wouldn’t be such an economic success.) They know that power costs are a factor in running their business and do what they can to minimize costs and maximize reliability. But they also know what tune their younger customers like to hear played, so they run a PR campaign to green up their business. This document offers a fascinating peek behind the mask.