May 19, 2021 - Technology

Inside Google's "moonshot goal" to rely on carbon-free energy by 2030

Illustration of the google search bar with the words CO2 in place of their logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Google is making inroads in its push toward what company officials call its "moonshot goal" of powering itself completely with carbon-free electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week by 2030.

The big picture: At its virtual I/O event Tuesday, Google announced that its climate intelligence computing platform will be able to shift tasks between data centers to maximize the use of renewable energy.

  • Michael Terrell, Google's energy director, tells Axios this could improve efficiency while getting closer to the carbon-free energy goal. Google's already been implementing a program to vary the timing of data center tasks to maximize the use of renewables.
  • The new effort aims to match non-time-sensitive compute tasks, like backing up files or upgrading programs, with times and places where the electricity grid will be the cleanest.
  • "By next year we're hoping that ... we'll be shifting more than a third of our non-urgent compute tasks within our data center network to places and times where there's greater availability of cleaner resources on the grid," Terrell told Axios.

Why it matters: Data centers suck up lots of electricity and running them on zero-carbon power will help fight global warming.

  • Google said its initiative will lower the carbon footprint of its YouTube, Google Maps, Search and other programs.
  • It will also allow developers on Google's Cloud and Cloud customers to prioritize the use of cleaner grids by choosing regions with better carbon-free energy scores.

State of play: Google also announced a deal with Fervo Energy, a next-generation geothermal startup, to bring several megawatts of carbon-free energy to Google's sprawling data centers and cloud computing infrastructure in Nevada.

  • This project is noteworthy because geothermal is currently a tiny part of America's renewable energy portfolio.
  • However, studies show it could expand its share of power generation and heating depending on the advancement of new technologies to find and tap into this resource.
  • Fervo, which recently raised $28 million in VC funding, uses horizontal drilling techniques pioneered in shale oil and gas drilling as well as fiber optic sensing to access geothermal resources.
  • The new project is expected to generate 5 megawatts of baseload geothermal power, but that may grow over time with the help of AI and machine learning, Terrell says.

The bottom line: With its new and existing projects, Google is trying to demonstrate what's possible now, and develop capabilities with ripple effects beyond Silicon Valley.

Go deeper: Google's biggest announcements at I/O

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