Tech Giants and Clean Energy

Individuals – including Arcadia Power members – are an important force driving the growth of the renewable energy industry around the world. However, the carbon footprint of any single household is just a barely-perceptible flicker compared to the blazing spotlight of demand that big business places on our planet’s energy resources. Enormous progress can be made when businesses, especially tech giants running gargantuan datacenters, join the crusade for clean energy.

Fortunately, companies across the U.S. have been declaring 100% renewable-energy targets over the past few years. For example, RE100, a global initiative launched in 2014, challenges companies to source 100% of their electricity consumption from renewable sources, by a specified year. With now more than 100 members, the campaign has gathered momentum and expanded beyond Europe and the U.S., into India and China.

Datacenters are the backbone of the massive exchange of information and funds that powers the modern world economy. Maintaining datacenters, or any big tech business requires staggering amounts of power. So, which companies are dedicated to sourcing that power through renewables? And how do they do it?

Google

In 2015, Google’s use of renewable energy was #3, behind Intel and Microsoft, according to EnergyDigital.com. Today Google has jumped into the lead, with Amazon and Apple in second and third place.

Google restructured in 2015, putting all their spin-off companies, including smart-home leader Nest, under the umbrella company called Alphabet. In 2017, Alphabet contracted to buy 3 gigawatts of power from renewable wind and solar sources (1 gigawatt = 1 billion watts). That’s actually more energy than Google needs to operate. Since data centers are connected directly to the electrical grid, it’s currently not possible to power them entirely from renewables, but Google can “match” their total energy use through power purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy providers. They can then sell excess power back to local markets.

In a recent blog, Google Tech Infrastructure guru Urs Hölzle said, “What’s important to us is that we are adding new clean energy sources to the electrical system, and we’re buying that renewable energy in the same amount as what we’re consuming, globally.” He added, “That renewable energy may be produced in a different place, or at a different time, from where we’re running our datacenters.”

Google’s energy investments help spur new wind and solar developments and drive down costs for everyday consumers. As of 2017, their purchasing commitments will result in infrastructure investments of more than $3.5 billion globally. They also claim their engineers are making their data centers significantly more efficient than their competitors’. Their goal is to make sustainability a reality.

To read more about Google’s current and future energy initiatives, see their white paper or Environmental Report. Some interesting projects described in this report include:

  • Recycling in Datacenters – getting more mileage out of every component used to run their data centers, thus contributing to a regenerative “circular economy model”
  • Carbon Offsets from Landfills – extracting and destroying harmful methane gas created by organic waste decomposition in landfills
  • Tracking Illegal Fishing – the Google Earth Outreach program called SkyTruth helps preserve our ocean resources by monitoring and reporting illegal fishing
  • Air Pollution Sensors – turning the Google Earth Street View fleet into an environmental monitoring platform

Amazon

Want to get a feel for how big a wind turbine really is? Check out the video tweet by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, as he christened the 253-megawatt Amazon Wind Farm Texas in October of 2017. At that time, Amazon had purchased more than 1.22 gigawatts of clean-energy output, second only to Google. Amazon’s Texas wind farm will deliver more than 1 million megawatt-hours of clean energy to the grid annually, as part of Amazon’s 18 current wind and solar projects. At least 35 additional projects are under development.

Microsoft

On the Environment section of Microsoft’s website the header reads, “Doing our part to green the grid.” As of 2015, Microsoft was utilizing more than 1.3 gigawatts of green power annually. In November 2016, they made a deal that would power their Cheyenne, WY datacenter entirely with wind energy.

“At Microsoft, our goal isn’t just to secure enough clean energy to power our own operations;” blogged Microsoft President Brad Smith, “our goal is to help modernize our entire grid to meet the needs of a 21st century, digital economy.”

Through PPA’s like Google’s, Microsoft supplies clean energy to their datacenters, while leveraging their technology to create more efficient power grids. The company is also working on green solutions such as their Dynamics AX, which is a tool for helping businesses manage their sustainability goals.

Apple

One of Apple’s approaches to the clean energy initiative is to issue “green bonds” that enable them to finance energy-related projects such as wind and solar farms, energy-efficient buildings and new recycling methods. In 2017 they issued a $1 billion green bond, on top of the $1.5 billion green bond from the previous year. That’s more than any other bond issuer in the green space.

In a Fortune article, Lisa Jackson, who was once the head of the EPA and is now Apple’s environmental VP, said, “Leadership from the business community is essential to address the threat of climate change and protect our shared planet. We’re proud to offer investors another opportunity to join us in this important work.”

See Apple’s 2017 Environment Progress Report here.

Facebook

Like the other tech giants we’re watching, Facebook also has an environment web section, called Sustainability. Here they explain that despite their growth from 1 million users in 2004, to more than 2 billion today, Facebook’s carbon impact per person has remained about the same. “For an entire year of one person’s Facebook use, our carbon footprint is less than the impact of making one pot of tea,” they claim.

Facebook calls their clean energy program CaRE. They hope to achieve 50% CaRE across their operations in 2018, with an ultimate goal of 100%. At the same time, they’re reducing their water footprint. “We install water-saving fixtures and appliances to conserve water, and all bathroom and kitchen fixtures meet Energy Star standards; we use minimal water for irrigation by relying on native or adaptive plant species,” they say. In 2016, they estimated that their efforts saved tens of millions of gallons of water.

Intel

Intel leads the EPA’s Green Power Partnership National Top 100 list of their biggest green power-using partners. By 2015 Intel was already covering 100% of its U.S. electricity use with renewable power, from sources including geothermal and biomass. Last year, Intel installed a wind micro-turbine array on the roof of its headquarters in California. Intel has installed 18 solar plants at several of its facilities, representing the solar capacity of approximately 7,000 kW (and growing).

This tech giant also plans to restore 100% of its global water use by 2025. Their sustainable water management projects have conserved billions of gallons of water.

An overview of Intel’s energy plan is available on its website, as are white papers on topics such as:

Every day, we are helping residential energy consumers support clean energy just like these large companies. Now you can make an impact too.