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Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google’s data centers, which house the servers that power billions of web searches, emails, and mapping routes every day, account for most of its electricity consumption.

(Bloomberg) -- Google Bay View, the company’s newest campus, consists of three squat buildings nestled near the San Francisco Bay shoreline a few miles east of its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The first things visitors notice are the roofs.

They curve down gently from pinched peaks, like circus tents, sloping almost to the ground. Each roof is blanketed with overlapping solar panels that glisten with a brushed metal sheen on the edges. Google calls this design Dragonscale, and indeed it looks as if a mystical beast is curled up by the water in Silicon Valley.

Google envisions its latest campus as the embodiment of a grander ambition to run its operations entirely free of carbon. The company plans to open Bay View in January to “a limited number” of employees, depending on the pandemic. Beneath the buildings, thousands of concrete pillars plunged into the ground will serve as a sort of geothermal battery, storing heat to warm the building and water supply without natural gas. The roof panels were constructed with a unique textured glass to prevent glare and with canopies that emit a soft, glowing light into the spacious atria inside. “We call this the Cathedral of Work,” says Asim Tahir, who oversees energy decisions in Google’s real estate division. He stands by the southern entrance in a hard hat, mask, and safety vest.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google and its parent Alphabet Inc., pokes his head inside for a look. During the pandemic, construction crews had set strict rules limiting entry for guests, even the boss. It’s the first Friday of September, and the normally reserved executive is eager to talk to Bloomberg Green about his company’s climate ambitions. Outside, the air is thick with wildfire smoke, a new annual reality for all of California. Hurricane Ida is pummeling the East Coast. Each disaster underscores how late corporate America is to the climate change fight.

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

Last year, Pichai announced Google’s plan to run every office and data center on electricity from clean sources, around the clock. He set 2030 as the deadline, marking perhaps the most ambitious corporate commitment to decarbonization ever. Google calls it a moonshot, the term it reserves for audacious—and so far mostly fruitless—projects such as self-driving cars and delivery drones. “It’s a bit stressful,” Pichai says, “because we don’t fully have all the answers to get there.”

Google’s data centers, which house the servers that power billions of web searches, emails, and mapping routes every day, account for most of its electricity consumption: 15.1 million megawatt-hours in 2020. Last year, Google met 67% of its data center electricity needs with renewable sources on an hourly basis, a 6% jump from the prior year. Data centers in certain places, such as Oklahoma and Oregon, run on close to or above 90% clean sources.

But getting off carbon elsewhere is a bigger challenge, and Google is aiming well beyond typical corporate targets. Dozens of companies have pledged to reach carbon neutrality, covering their energy usage either with renewable sources or offsets. (A carbon offset is a credit companies can buy that stands in for one ton of emissions that otherwise would have polluted the atmosphere; the money is supposed to go toward emissions-reducing projects.)

Apple Inc. achieved carbon neutrality with its own operations and vowed to do the same with its supply chain by 2030. Amazon.com Inc. promised to be carbon neutral by 2040. Google aims to go even further. It’s committed to go free of carbon, without using offsets and relying only on clean energy purchased near its locations, 24 hours a day. That means in Chile, where solar panels power Google’s data center during the day, the company must find a solution when the sun sets. In dense Taiwan and Singapore, where its data centers run almost entirely on fossil fuels, it must find massive amounts of green alternatives very quickly.

To hit its goal, Google is relying on unorthodox procurement contracts and a grab bag of novel technologies such as lithium-ion battery storage, algorithms that predict wind patterns, and geothermal wells that drill into the Earth’s crust. Earlier this summer, Microsoft Corp. followed Google with another pledge to go carbon-free 24/7. These companies, pioneers of innovation worth trillions, are trying to cut out carbon while still maintaining spectacular growth: Google and Microsoft added more than $91 billion in profits last year as much of the economy contracted. Although they’re huge and influential energy consumers, they’re mostly at the mercy of antiquated utilities built on fossil fuels. Google knows this. “The ultimate solution is to get the power grids to carbon-free all the time,” says Michael Terrell, Google’s director of energy. “We still don’t know the path everywhere, and that’s really challenging.”

Google’s environmental record isn’t spotless. Critics have charged it with funding politicians who deny global warming, accepting green-washing advertisements, and boosting climate conspiracies on YouTube. Employees have condemned its cloud-computing deals with oil companies. Google server farms use considerable amounts of water. Yet the company’s approach to renewable energy—it purchased 15.4 million megawatt-hours in 2020—has earned widespread praise. Risk management company MSCI Inc. grades Google poorly on governance and social impact, citing its numerous competition lawsuits; on environmental issues, it gives Google perfect marks.

Pichai has pledged that Google’s climate work will create more than 20,000 clean energy jobs and help hundreds of cities reduce carbon footprints. Google will need to spend considerable amounts to become carbon-free, and it might have to curb its enormous appetite for computing horsepower.

Still, the effort makes business sense for Pichai, who says Google’s investments will drive down costs for existing renewables and spur new ones. Google will try selling some energy efficiency technologies, too. Tech employees are starting to demand greener business practices and sustainable workspaces such as the Bay View campus, not simply as niceties but as vital parts of making the future livable. Pichai says businesses that don’t get off carbon will be left in the dust. “If you don’t do this correctly, you won’t be able to attract talent,” he says. “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.”

Google began planning its Bay View campus in 2015, but its design ideas took seed well before then. The company’s founders had a crunchy California streak, demanding its first offices include low-impact carpets and recyclable materials. Tinkering staff once stuck 12 bores into the pavement as an early geothermal experiment, which pumped up hot water for a campus cafe. Engineers played around with solar prototypes in a parking lot.

These green projects were also about saving money. Fifteen years ago the search engine was expanding ferociously, adding energy-hungry services such as Gmail and YouTube. “That was always really shocking when you looked at the bill,” recalls Urs Hölzle, a senior vice president and early employee. In 2007, Google installed a 1.6MW solar array atop its headquarters and started a program to fund a slate of renewable projects with the aim of driving their costs below coal—they named the project REC.

That year, Google also claimed it had offset all its carbon emissions, though it shared little data. “They said, ‘We’re carbon neutral—trust us,’ ” remembers Gary Cook, who tracked technology companies for Greenpeace Inc.

Solar and wind prices fell precipitously, prompting Google to drop REC. Yet it kept buying renewables. It made a power purchase agreement (PPA) in 2010 for a 114MW wind farm in Iowa. Two years later the company set a goal to buy enough excess renewables to cover the amount of fossil fuels it used. The company assumed this process would take a decade. Thanks to a rush of new wind farms and solar systems, it took five years.

With that achievement, Google was hailed in the press as “100% renewable.” Some employees, however, bristled at the technical inaccuracy, according to Hölzle, who oversees Google infrastructure. Google didn’t use renewables 100% of the time. “Take this data center, at this time,” Hölzle recalls the argument. “Clearly it is using coal.” Google needed a better goal.

Terrell runs the division responsible for energy purchases and utility relations. When Google first considered round-the-clock renewables, he found the prospect “really, really out there.” Google had signed 26 PPAs by 2017, but each required jumping through exhausting regulatory hoops. Solar and wind were getting cheaper, but storing the power they generated wasn’t. Google kept expanding. From 2017 to 2020, it opened 15 new data centers for its consumer and cloud services.

Terrell’s team had to get creative. Typically, when power outages hit a Google site, the company flips to backup generators to keep its services running. In Belgium, Google worked with a local power company, Elia Transmission Belgium SA, to swap out diesel generators for hulking lithium-ion batteries at a data center in St.-Ghislain, near the French border. Terrell says the company is exploring ways to route excess energy stored in the batteries to the local utility provider. “Instead of just having them sit there, why not actually help an operator manage the grid?” he says. He predicts Google will take this elsewhere.

Naturally, Google is also turning to software to tackle the challenge. Engineers developed a tool, called “carbon-intelligent computing platform,” that schedules computing tasks during dips in energy use. Google deems certain activities, such as encoding a YouTube video or adding a new term to Google Translate, “nonurgent,” unworthy of instant gratification. These software tasks are put on hold until enough sunshine or wind is available. Other computer models are used to predict when wind power will be strongest. Google later added a feature for shifting tasks to different data centers.

In Virginia, Google offloaded its 24/7 plan to energy distributor AES Corp. The companies signed a 10-year deal in May, for an undisclosed amount, covering 500MW of renewable projects that AES owns or will buy. The power distributor is relying on a “mix and match” of solar and wind generation as well as its lithium-ion batteries that store energy to deliver for Google, says AES CEO Andrés Gluski. Other tech companies have inked similar decarbonization deals with AES, he says, though he declines to name them. That corporate rush might complicate Google’s 24/7 plans or at least make them pricier. Land with the exact interconnection rights utilities require is scarce, and AES anticipates shortages on some equipment, such as solar panels and batteries, as soon as 2023. “There are going to be bottlenecks,” Gluski says. The former telecom executive compares the upcoming renewables market to mobile phones in the 1990s, when demand suddenly skyrocketed. “We’re talking about a ramp-up which is nothing like the electricity sector has seen,” he says. AES has committed to provide Google with entirely clean energy by its target date.

Google has a different problem in Asia. There aren’t enough clean energy producers or much room for production. In Singapore the company bought electricity from rooftop solar on public housing. In Taiwan it managed a deal with government officials to gain access to 40,000 panels hoisted on poles above lakes. Still, most Google Asian operations run on fossil fuels. “I’m not sure we can reach 100% in Asia,” Hölzle admits. Terrell says policy changes are probably the only way Google hits its 24/7 goal there.

In 2020, Google released a lengthy white paper on the 24/7 plan, listing its methodology and accounting standards in surprising detail—at least for Google, which rarely reveals internal data. Such disclosure has won over previous critics including Cook, who now serves as global climate campaigns director for the environmental advocacy group Stand.earth. “You’re certainly not getting this from Amazon,” Cook says.

Google has some advantages: It doesn’t have Amazon’s gigantic fulfillment centers and counts fewer employees than Apple and Microsoft. Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford, says he wishes Google offered granularity about its storage battery capacity and its plans to power sites at night and on cloudy days. (A Google spokesperson says the company has signed commitments of more than 280 megawatts in energy storage and it plans to tap “always on” clean energy sources, like geothermal, to cover electricity bills around-the-clock.) Still, Google’s endeavor “goes beyond what I’ve seen from most other companies,” Jackson says. “It’s exciting to see.”

Even if Google manages major breakthroughs in battery storage or geothermal, it’s still beholden to the grid and to lawmakers.

In the past, Google toyed with ideas for remaking utilities altogether. Co-founder Larry Page often told staff about his desire to modernize the power grid by switching it from alternating current to direct current voltages, which can transmit electricity across long distances more efficiently; he reportedly brought this up at a sit-down with President Donald Trump in late 2016. (Page has since stepped away from the company.) Years before, Google hired a former U.S. Department of Energy official who, according to reports, began work on Google-style tools for managing power lines and systems. Hölzle says Google actually applied for a license to trade excess renewables it purchased and this maneuver was mistaken as a plan to overhaul utilities. Although remaking the grid was tempting, Google didn’t pursue it. (“I mean, you can’t do everything,” Hölzle offers.)

She also deals with curbing emissions that don’t fall under Google’s carbon-free commitment: those from employee commuting, business travel, and device manufacturing. Google’s carbon contributions here are smaller than those of some peers, such as Apple, but they’re not nothing. (In 2020, Google reported 9.4 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions in these categories.) The company has pledged to invest 5GW of new clean energy over the decade in places where its gadgets are made. The pandemic helped cut employee travel footprints, for now.

Brandt’s most significant work might be persuading others to follow Google. She was a keynote speaker for the company’s recent software developer summit and its shareholder meeting. Her team is creating a blueprint of its 24/7 plan for cities and companies—those outside tech and without Google’s piles of cash. “This isn’t just about Google reaching a goal,” she says. “This is about how we share our practices.” Pichai says most conversations with fellow CEOs touch on sustainability and Google’s carbon-free plan, even if that’s not on the agenda. “People want to understand how we are doing it,” he says. He declined to share how much Google is budgeting for its endeavor. To achieve carbon-free operations, Google would need to spend at least $491 million for an additional 10.8 million megawatt-hours of renewable energy, according to estimates from BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group.

Money isn’t a major concern for Google, which has about $135 billion of cash on hand. But it needs massive amounts of clean energy to buy, and it knows laws must change for that to happen. The company has endorsed a U.S. clean energy standard and says it’s backing similar proposals elsewhere. To some outsiders, however, Google’s policy efforts are inadequate. Bill Weihl worked at the company from 2006 to 2011 as its “green energy czar” and now runs ClimateVoice, an advocacy nonprofit. He says he believes, as do many experts, that the fastest way to decarbonize the grid is through rewriting laws, not corporate procurement. With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, Weihl sees a very short window for expansive new legislation. And he sees relatively little activity from Silicon Valley. “Most companies are silent,” Weihl says. “And the fossil fuel companies are really vocal trying to weaken, slow down, or just stop all those kinds of policies.”

Google hasn’t. But it did decide not to build a data center in a state whose politics were “very unfriendly” to clean energy, Hölzle says. (He wouldn’t say where.) In some less welcoming states, including Alabama, where Google operates an old coal plant, Hölzle says Google is an instigator for cleaner energy rules. Pichai agrees, arguing that his financial investments have “ripple effects” in states and cities. “I haven’t quite thought lobbying is the best way to accomplish it,” he says. “But we’ve always advocated for these issues.”

Google Bay View sits next to NASA’s sprawling Ames Research Center and was built so Google employees, perched high in the offices, can see a rocky patch of simulated alien dirt where the science agency tests its Mars rover. It’s a nice perk. While the campus was under construction, the pandemic struck, prompting all companies to reevaluate office amenities and real estate plans. Google has, so far, stayed committed to a future inside offices and says this new one can showcase its green ingenuity. Google’s Tahir says the campus is meant to capture Google’s “spirit of innovation, community, and ecology.” Google hired Heatherwick Studio, an English design company, and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels for the project, but Google has described the campus as one the company “designed from scratch.”

Tahir thinks conventional buildings are illogical messes. They evaporate water to cool the air and burn gas to generate heat, sometimes at the same time. “It’s very bizarre,” he says. For Bay View, Google scrapped the normal office pipes for a ventilation system that pulls in outside air and saves loads of water (5 million gallons a year, the company estimates). Its underground network of geothermal piles will store excess heat and pump it back up during the winter, without burning natural gas. Up top, the Dragonscale solar roofs were created to be practical and visually impressive; Pichai calls them “aesthetically amazing.” Tahir expects the 50,000 panels will power around 40% of the campus, with the remainder coming from the grid. The buildings applied for LEED Platinum, but the U.S. Green Building Council can’t yet evaluate all of Google’s innovations. “We’re doing things here they don’t have certificates for,” Tahir says.

These energy efficiency measures in Bay View aren’t meant merely to burnish Google’s green credentials; the company anticipates they can bring payoffs. DeepMind, a Google research lab, examined data coming from sensors inside Google’s data centers to predict when temperatures would fluctuate. It then invented an algorithm to adjust the dials used for cooling rows of servers more efficiently, cutting the power bill as much as 40%. Google offers this temperature control system as a cloud computing service to other companies. Google’s cloud business, a key priority for Pichai, is where it expects financial returns for its big clean energy gamble. The company recently introduced a feature for cloud customers to select data storage locations running on more clean energy.

Yet Google will have hard choices ahead if it wants Bay View to be anything more than an exhibition of an unattainable dream. The company’s cloud business, which it markets as the “cleanest cloud,” is also growing at more than 50% a year. That’s a lot more energy that Google has to provide without fossil fuels. Cloud customers typically want their data stored nearby, so, unlike the sprawling server farms for Gmail and YouTube, Google can’t place cloud centers anywhere it pleases. As the 2030 deadline approaches, Google may find it impossible to keep its carbon-free commitment and keep growing the way it always has.

Pichai, sitting under an awning of his lavish new campus, admits as much. “There will be sacrifices we will have to make,” he says. “It may lead to some services we can’t build.” That’s a rare admission from the leader of a business that has tried building virtually everything. Tech companies have yet to treat their computing heft, and the energy it demands, as finite resources, like their cash or engineers—or like Lake Tahoe, which saw raging fires while Pichai discussed his plans. He mentions those fires, the extreme Gulf Coast heat, and these “runaway scenarios” of climate change. “You read one of those articles,” the CEO says, “and you’re like, ‘Everything else we do ends up not mattering.’ ” 

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Bergen in San Francisco at mbergen10@bloomberg.net

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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