By “offsetting” fossil electricity consumed at one data centre through buying green power from somewhere else, Google has been 100% renewable since 2017. But offsetting always has its flaws. In this case, 40% of Google’s actual power still comes from fossil fuels. Google’s new plan, to be 100% green 24/7 straight off the local grid, is designed to solve that. It will also send market signals to increase clean capacity locally, not just where you can easily build a wind farm, solar array or hydroelectric dam. That also points to much needed investment in early stage dispatchable sources like geothermal, hydrogen and batteries. After all, solar and wind’s variability means, despite its plummeting costs, it can never deliver 24/7 power on its own. Jules Kortenhorst at RMI explains the logic and looks at the solutions being used to maximise efficiency by matching demand with renewable supply. The quality of data on grid mixes is getting better, artificial intelligence is steering consumption patterns, and clean energy keeps getting cheaper. Kortenhorst says Google could provide the test case that other big corporates, governments and regulators can learn from to cost-effectively decarbonise grids everywhere, not just where it’s cheapest to do so.
At RMI we believe that corporate leadership on the climate crisis can help accelerate progress toward a carbon-free future, and have been inspired by leadership from corporations that have helped prove out the business case for clean energy.
Among these leaders, Google has consistently set the standard for clean energy; in 2007 it became the first major company to achieve carbon neutrality. A decade later it became the first company of its size to match 100 percent of global annual electricity use with purchases of renewable energy.
Now, Google is taking the next step on this journey with an approach it’s calling 24/7 Carbon Free Energy. Put simply, this means that Google will no longer match its data centres’ energy use throughout the year with 100 percent renewable energy purchased anywhere in the world. It will now match hourly electricity use with locally sourced zero-carbon energy, operating essentially on carbon-free electricity around the clock by 2030.
The importance of locally sourced energy on an hourly basis
Though the shift from annual matching to hourly matching may seem like a shift in semantics, the fact that Google will be sourcing carbon-free energy from the same regions in which its data centres operate, and during the same hours (at night, for example, when there is no solar), could have substantial impact on decarbonisation of grid mixes in Google’s data regions.
The IPCC identified a 2030 deadline for a 45 percent reduction in global emissions if we are to stave off the worst impact of climate change. To reach this goal, we’ll need to do more than continue developing new renewable projects in areas where renewable resources—namely sun and wind—are prevalent. In announcing its commitment to 24/7 carbon-free energy, Google is making a strong case that carbon-free energy can be sourced and deployed even in locations where renewables are scarce.
Clean energy is getting cheaper
Google’s goal is ambitious, and it is possible only because of the recent speed of advancements and decrease in cost of solar, wind, and storage as well as promising advancements in other carbon-free technologies. To achieve its goal, Google is banking on these trends continuing. Achievement of the goal will also rely on continued innovation in the realm of AI and Machine learning—which Google already uses—to shift loads and increase efficiency for optimal power usage when and where renewables are prevalent.
By taking on this challenge, Google aims to prove that a carbon-free future is both possible and achievable fast enough to prevent the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Demonstrating the feasibility of this approach can help accelerate an economic transition to clean energy, not just for individual buyers but for entire regional grids around the world. This will hasten the arrival of a world in which everyone has access to affordable, clean power that doesn’t contribute to climate change or harm communities with air pollution.
Why prioritise 24/7 carbon-free energy?
As Google CEO Sundar Pichai laid out in his announcement today, the company has matched 100 percent of its global, annual electricity consumption with renewable energy every year since 2017. However, in 2019 only 61 percent of all the electricity the company used was matched with regional, carbon-free sources on an hourly basis. The difference arises from the mismatch of weather-dependent renewable energy and Google’s facility-level electricity demands; in other words, the wind didn’t always blow and the sun didn’t always shine when the facilities needed power.
Although on average, in 2019, Google offset the carbon emitted to power its operations with emissions savings from procured renewable energy (often sourced in areas where renewable energy is more plentiful), nearly 40 percent of its electricity still came from fossil fuel sources. But in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C or less and avoid the worst effects of climate change, the electricity grid needs to be virtually 100 percent carbon-free by mid-century. Furthermore, we must significantly reduce carbon emissions (e.g., 60–80 percent) from 2020 levels by the end of this decade.
Google is among the leaders in recognising and acting on this mismatch between the typical strategy of offsetting annual demand with renewable energy, and the much more complicated problem of matching hourly demand with locally sourced carbon-free electricity. While matching annual load with renewables has been an important step in driving adoption at scale of clean energy, it is not sufficient to enable the truly decarbonised grid required to maintain a safe climate in the coming decades.
A test case for cost-effective 24/7 procurement
Google’s effort to develop its 2030 target for 24/7 carbon-free energy has yielded a rich set of information that can help develop forward-looking decarbonisation models for regional power grids around the world. Taking into account both global market trends and local enabling conditions (e.g., renewable resources, existing policies, and market structures), these regional projections tell a hopeful story: Google is taking a great leap toward a clean-energy future with the goal of 24/7 carbon-free energy, and it is making a strong case that decarbonisation of the global economy is not only possible, but can be achieved in a cost-effective manner.
By showing that 24/7 carbon-free energy is achievable and economical, Google can pave the way for other companies to follow suit. With growing scale from climate-motivated corporations and other electricity customers, the business case for 24/7 carbon-free energy can be tested and expanded for regional grids around the world.
Driving much needed innovation: geothermal, hydrogen, batteries
Importantly, expanding the market for 24/7 carbon-free energy can play a critical role in driving innovation in emerging technologies that will be critical to accelerate the pace of deep decarbonisation. Wind and solar energy are now the least-cost option across the globe for new electricity generation (and in many cases can beat existing fossil plants on price) and will play a major role in a least-cost decarbonised grid.
However, a broader array of generation and demand-side resources, including geothermal, green hydrogen, new battery chemistries, and many other technologies require further action to achieve the scale that wind and solar have already reached. 24/7 carbon-free energy procurement can provide a market signal for innovation in these and other future breakthroughs.
Data driven optimisation
24×7 is a major challenge and Google quietly went to considerable lengths “under the hood” to make sure the company got it right. Crucially, it also considered the difficult challenge that its demand profile may not match the availability of renewable energy on the grid. In addition to prioritising renewable energy that matches the company’s own energy demand, Google needs to ensure it doesn’t accidentally pick times that are less correlated with the needs of the power grid as a whole—which could inadvertently increase emissions.
That’s why it’s so exciting that having already pushed the envelope on showing what’s possible in shifting load, the Google team also thoughtfully measured the emissions implications of their strategy. While this demonstrates that 24×7 load management can be effective at reducing emissions, companies like Google could achieve even greater impact by managing their load and procurement to maximise emissions reductions.
Maximising the emissions impact of different renewable procurement strategies is growing easier as grid data such as operating margin (electricity from existing power plants) and build margin (new power plant construction) emissions data become more widely available and accurate for electricity grids around the world. In time, Google and other companies prioritising different visions of 24/7 procurement may be able to go even further and directly optimise the avoided emissions of such strategies and further amplify their impact.
Supply-Demand optimisation is getting easier
To take the next steps necessary to meet its 24/7 commitment, Google will use metrics that characterise how well candidate carbon-free energy projects can match facility loads, as well as their impact on the grid’s overall emissions. An important component of these metrics is data on average hourly grid emissions, which is widely available and can immediately support prioritisation between candidate projects. As marginal emissions data becomes more widely available and accurate for electricity grids around the world, companies prioritising 24/7 procurement can achieve even greater carbon savings with their investments.
Overall, we commend Google for this visionary leadership on demonstrating how a carbon-free future is possible, but we think companies following Google’s lead can extract even further emissions reductions from their efforts. As costs for renewable energy, batteries and other carbon-free technologies continue to plummet around the world, other companies can more easily follow along the path to optimising their demand and renewable energy procurement to maximise emissions reductions.
Companies, governments, regulators
With companies helping to accelerate the pace of renewable energy deployment, entire electric grids can also more quickly move to achieve 100 percent zero-emissions operations. As the trend continues, regulators and government leaders around the world will more easily be able to set policies encouraging further acceleration to a 100 percent clean electric grid.
Realising this vision as soon as possible is imperative for addressing climate change. Google’s commitment is an indication that it can be achieved, and with a business case that can be taken up by other motivated buyers and ultimately pave the way for 24/7 carbon-free energy for all.
Jules Kortenhorst is the Chief Executive Officer of Rocky Mountain Institute
This article was first published on RMI.org, and has been reprinted with permission