Google to Purchase 100% Alternative Energy Sources in 2017

Pedal faster, we need the juice! The tech giant is about to become the world's greenest company. Here's how. 


Google’s about to become the world’s largest green company.

According to The New York Times, the tech giant used as much energy in 2016 as the entire city of San Francisco. That’s enough energy to power half a million American homes in the same time frame. Why? “Google's energy costs are much higher than usual because in addition to powering its offices, Google also runs several large data servers in many parts of the world,” Popular Mechanics reports. Google’s noticed that, too – and it's decided to take action.

In 2017, Google hopes to stop its energy drain by using only solar and wind technologies to power its headquarters and all worldwide data centers. “What Google has done over the last decade, with relatively little fanfare, is participate in a number of large-scale deals with renewable producers, typically guaranteeing to buy the energy they produce with their wind turbines and solar cells,” reports The Times. Those guarantees, known as Renewable Energy Certificates, allow producers to obtain financing that helps them purchase more turbines or solar cells. Google plans to have all of its facilities and campuses purchase enough certificates to cover 100% of its energy output by next year.

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Google’s current renewable energy contracts. Credit: Yale Environment 360.

"We are the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world,” Google vice president of data centers Joseph Kava told The Times. “It’s good for the economy, good for business and good for our shareholders.” There is truth to that; Google has seen both lower energy consumption and improved efficiency since investing in renewable energy. “Compared to five years ago, the company says it now delivers 3.5 times more computing power with the same amount of electricity in certain portions of its data centers,” The Verge reports. They released a white paper to explain even more about their data savings.

Google’s hope is that other companies will follow its lead. “I do know that a lot of learnings can be applied to other industries,” Kava told The Verge. “If you’re a large industrial plant, whether it’s petrochemical, oil and gas, or just large metal fabrication, it’s a lot of the same things. Power going in, which means heat, and getting that heat out.”

Google hopes other tech companies will adopt alternative energy sources as well. “Microsoft says it has been 100 percent carbon neutral since 2014, but much of this comes from the purchase of carbon offsets,” The Times explains “which are investments in things like tree planting or renewables projects.” If Microsoft were to follow Google’s lead and invest in renewable energy rather than purchase carbon offsets, the tech industry might very well help alternative energies gain enough traction to become viable mainstream power sources.

For all of its potential, there are a few caveats to Google’s plan. Namely, it isn't actually going to power anything with renewable energy. It's just going to invest in it. “If they think they can actually support themselves with wind and solar panels, they should connect them directly to their data centers,” Chris Warren, vice president of communications at the Institute for Energy Research (and alleged fossil fuel fan), told The Times. “In my mind it’s a PR gimmick.”

Yet, “Google support for the [alternative energy] industry could keep prices dropping, particularly relative to things like coal,” reports The Times. If Google succeeds, it will become the first large corporation to run entirely on clean energy and that, as environmental strategy consultant Andrew Winston told us, could change the world for the better: 

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

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One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

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Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


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Image: NASA
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One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

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