Oct 11, 2018 - Technology

Google's 24-7 carbon-free goal

A colorful Google bike on the Google campus

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

Google released a report yesterday describing an interesting challenge: It aims to eventually use carbon-free electricity to power its energy-thirsty data centers around the clock and around the world.

Why it matters: The tech giant announced months ago that it already purchases enough renewable energy in the aggregate to match their annual power consumption. But that's not the same thing as never using carbon-emitting power.

  • Their data centers across the world are still pulling from grid mixes that contain varying amounts of fossil fuels.
  • "On a global and annual basis, our purchases of solar and wind energy zero out the entire carbon footprint of our electricity use," they note.
  • "Yet this is an imperfect solution. We want to build a future where each Google facility is always matched — around the clock — with carbon-free power," the study states.

Where it stands: Google notes they source CO2-free power in two broad ways — their long-term power purchase deals from regional renewables projects and the power coming from a broader regional grid.

  • They're now measuring how the hourly power use for each data center lines up with the hourly carbon-free supply in a given region (which bounces around due to the variability of renewables).
  • The results vary.

Details, per Google:

  • One example is a data center in Hamina, Finland, where 97% of the power use is matched on an hourly basis with CO2-free resources, thanks to their wind purchase deals in the region and a Finnish grid with lots of nuclear, hydro and biomass.
  • Yet at a center in Lenoir, N.C., the total is 67%, due to drawing on a night-time power mix in which energy from their local solar purchase deal has, of course, waned.
  • And, at a Taiwanese center in a coal- and gas-dominated area, the hourly match is less than 20%, though they're hoping to begin directly sourcing CO2-free power thanks to recent changes in power market policies.

What's next: The report lays out 3 broad ways to boost the hourly match worldwide...

  • "Policy and market reforms" can be enacted that lower procurement barriers, as well as carbon pricing.
  • Develop and deploy technologies like advanced nuclear, storage and carbon capture.
  • "[N]ew energy contracting approaches that focus on providing firm low-carbon electricity 24x7."
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