What’s Google doing in the energy sector?

Another view of the south side of the Googlepl...

Google headquarters. Image via Wikipedia

There was a lot of buzz last year when Google created Google Energy LLC, a subsidiary of the search engine giant that is focused on reducing energy costs and consumption for the company but that can also produce and sell clean energy.

Prior to the formation of the company, Google had already been investing in wind, solar, and geothermal projects, including a 1.6 megawatt (MW) solar panel array at its Mountain View CA headquarters. Google Energy has since invested $38.8 million for wind farms generating 169.5 MW in North Dakota, agreed to purchase 100 MW of wind energy in both Iowa and Oklahoma, joined a group of investors building an undersea cable in the Atlantic to carry wind energy from future offshore wind farms to transmission grids, invested $168 million in BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar thermal plant being built in the California’s Mojave desert and capable of generating 392 MW of solar power, and put money into a variety of smaller greentech startups. Google said that with the Ivanpah deal, its investment in clean power has hit $250 million.

With so much money going into support for renewables, it’s ironic that Greenpeace recently knocked Google in a recent study looking at data centers and the dirty energy powering them. Greenpeace later issued a special statement to the press praising some of Google’s clean energy efforts.

So what is Google up to? In an article at Gigaom last year, Google’s Niki Fenwick said that the creation of Google Energy was an attempt to proactively address hurdles the company might face in its plans to be carbon neutral. By buying and selling clean energy from its investments, Google would help offset the carbon emissions associated with its data centers and other operations. Owning its own power generation will also allow the tech giant to lower its energy costs.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Google’s green energy czar, Bill Weihl, said that the company had reduced energy consumption by more than 50% over the last five to six years at their server and data centers. Moreover, he said that Google Energy was interested in improvements and efficiencies, but also what he called “additionality.” In Weihl’s words, “Basically, we ask: will our purchase [of power from a renewable energy provider] result in something new happening beyond business-as-usual.”

Google is famous for aggressively pursuing side projects that don’t seem to have a clear connection to its core business. Google Energy, however, makes sense: it provides clean energy for data centers, the investments offer good returns for the capital, and, as noted by Fenwick, it positions the company to proactively address issues that might rise in the future.

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