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A Carbon Free Google: An interview with Michael Terrell, Google's Director of Energy

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In 2020, Google announced it had eliminated its entire carbon legacy while also unveiling a new raft of sustainability commitments and helping more than 500 cities to reduce their carbon emissions. This followed a pledge in early 2020 by Microsoft to offset all its emissions since the company was established in 1975. REM talked to Google Director of Energy Michael Terrell to find out more.
A Carbon Free Google: An interview with Michael Terrell, Google
Michael Terrell, Google Director of Energy.

Last year, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, said that the company is eliminating its entire carbon legacy. Okay, what does that carbon legacy consist of and how is the company going to achieve this?

In September of 2020, our CEO Sundar Pichai announced that Google had eliminated its entire carbon legacy, meaning that we had covered all our operational emissions before we became carbon neutral in 2007 through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets. We were the first major company to achieve this goal.

We also announced our most ambitious goal yet - to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy in all our data centers, cloud regions and campuses worldwide by 2030, which we’ll achieve through investing in new technologies, pursuing new ways of transacting for clean energy, and supporting public policy that enables full grid decarbonization.

What are the main technologies Google is using to move towards 24/7 carbon-free energy use in all its data centers and campuses?

We’ve invested in a range of technologies that stand to move the needle significantly towards full decarbonization. You can think of these in two categories.

First, there are technologies that help us get smarter about the way we manage our electricity consumption. For example, starting in 2014, we began using machine learning to automatically optimize cooling in our data centers. At the same time, we’ve deployed smart temperature, lighting, and cooling controls to further reduce the energy used at our data centers.

In 2020, we announced a new carbon-intelligent computing platform designed and deployed for our hyperscale (meaning very large) data centers to shift the timing of many compute tasks to when low-carbon power sources, like wind and solar, are most plentiful. As of 2021, we can now shift moveable compute tasks between different data centers, based on regional hourly carbon-free energy availability.

Second, there are technologies that allow us to better source, store and deploy carbon-free energy. For example, in Belgium, we installed battery-based systems for replacing backup generators at our hyper scale data centers, which will help us operate more cleanly when the power grid goes down and enable the grid itself to move towards a carbon-free future

We also signed the largest corporate solar+storage agreement (350 MW of solar and 280 MW of storage) with our utility partner NV Energy in Nevada. The benefits of the battery system will be shared; when the storage is needed most and is most valuable to the utility in the summer peaking hours, the utility can dispatch it for their system needs to reduce reliance on gas peakers. During the rest of the year, we can use the battery to better match our electricity demand with CFE. This benefit-sharing model is a way to bring down the cost of batteries.

Most recently, we invested in a next-generation geothermal project that will add “always on” carbon-free energy to the electric grid that serves Google’s data centers and infrastructure throughout Nevada, including our Cloud region in Las Vegas. Geothermal is one of a subset of “firm” carbon-free energy technologies that is critical to complementing solar and wind power and facilitating deep decarbonization of electricity grids.

From where is this being sourced? Are there particular renewable energy plants that Google is drawing from?

By the end of 2020, we signed more than 55 agreements totaling nearly 6 GW of renewable energy capacity. Our renewable energy deals span the globe and include investments in the U.S., Chile Europe, Taiwan and Singapore. In the U.S., we’ve purchased carbon-free energy in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington. In South America, we’ve added 125 MW of renewable energy capacity to the grid that supplies our data center in Chile. A large portion of our purchase commitments are for renewable energy projects located in Europe, specifically Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Norway.

Those 500 cities Sundar mentioned, that Google is helping to reduce their carbon emissions, which cities are these? How is the company going about this?

In 2020, Google made a commitment to help more than 500 cities and local governments reduce an aggregate of 1 gigaton of carbon emissions per year by 2030. To do this, we’ll empower city planners and policymakers with the Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE), a platform we developed by analyzing Google’s comprehensive global mapping data together with standard greenhouse gas (GHG) emission factors, to make it easier for cities to measure progress against their climate action plans.

The first five pilot cities included in the EIE launch in 2018 were Melbourne, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Victoria, Canada; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Mountain View, California. In 2020, we expanded EIE access to more than 3,000 cities worldwide.

In addition, we’re working with city planners and policymakers and partnering with leading organizations, like ICLEI and Ironbark Sustainability, to support local climate action planning and help these cities make a meaningful impact in reducing their carbon emissions.

Are there any signs that other companies are beginning to emulate Google with regard to decarbonizing their operations? Is Google working with any partners in order to attempt to set and achieve industry-wide decarbonization targets?

Absolutely. We’ve seen 24/7 carbon-free energy goals gain strong momentum beyond Google. For example, at the urging of Google and other leading organizations, the Biden Administration has set a goal for federal agencies to purchase 24/7 clean power for federal buildings.

In 2020, the city of Des Moines adopted a resolution to achieve 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2035. In April 2021, Iron Mountain, a data center company, committed to a 24/7 carbon-free energy goal. In July 2021, Microsoft also announced a 24/7 clean energy commitment of their own.

Most recently, we partnered with Sustainable Energy for All to launch the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact, which represents a new global movement to accelerate the transition to a carbon-free electricity sector and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. The Compact lays out a set of principles and actions that actors can take to adopt, enable, and advance 24/7 Carbon-free Energy, focusing on hourly decarbonization of local and regional electricity grids. Along with Google, 18 other signatories, including AES, Orsted, EDP and the government of Iceland have signed on to the Compact.

Is Google engaging in any political campaigning or lobbying to try and get governments to push forward effective decarbonization policies?

We believe policy is essential to accelerating the transition to a decarbonized electricity system. That’s why, as we target 24/7 carbon-free energy, we intend to work with partners across every sector to advocate for government action that supports carbon-free technology development and deployment, advances smarter energy markets, and empowers energy consumers.

In addition to our work with SEforALL to launch the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact, Google has already played a key role in advancing policies that accelerate clean energy technology deployment. In Taiwan, for instance, we worked with our utility partners and other stakeholders to support an amendment to the Taiwan Electricity Act, which made it possible for any organization to directly contract for renewable energy.

Google also played a key role in launching two coalitions focused on expanding clean energy access—the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance in the U.S. and the Re-Source Platform in Europe—and we look forward to working with our partners to make it easy for any organization, large or small, to choose carbon-free energy.

Lastly, we’ve supported a strong national clean electricity standard, helped champion good clean energy policies across US states, and encouraged the Federal government to adopt a 24/7 CFE goal for federal facilities. 

What lies ahead, say over the next ten to twenty years, with regard to Google’s decarbonization plans?

We are already making significant progress towards our goal of operating on 24/7 carbon-free energy. Five of our data center sites — in Denmark, Finland, Iowa, Oklahoma and Oregon — are now operating near or at 90% carbon-free energy, and, in 2020, Google achieved 67% round-the-clock carbon free energy across all its data centers, up from 61% in 2019.

Michael Terrell is Director of Energy at Google where he leads global strategy and 24/7 carbon-free energy initiatives for Google’s data centers and global energy portfolio. Among his achievements in this role has been the advancement of new approaches to Google’s procurement of renewable energy, the pioneering of renewable energy purchase programs and also the delivery of various landmark projects, such as the conversion of coal-fired plants to data centers.

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