Though you may not see it directly, everything you do online runs on electricity. Every email, search, download, and stream runs through a data center, which uses energy. And right now, that energy has a carbon footprint. The International Energy Agency estimates that data centers account for about one percent of global electricity use annually. If one percent sounds small, consider this – that’s roughly the same amount of electricity Australia consumes.
Between February and April 2020, global internet traffic surged by nearly 40% as video conferences, streaming, and online interactions took on a new role during the early months of the pandemic. Remarkably, there actually wasn’t a corresponding rise in electricity consumption by data centers. In fact, one study found that:
While the amount of computing done in data centers has increased by about 550 percent between 2010 and 2018, the amount of energy consumed by data centers only grew by six percent during the same time period.
Yet even as data centers are becoming more efficient, eliminating carbon from the equation entirely is essential to combat the existential threat of climate change. Enter Google’s program for 24/7 carbon-free energy.
For over a decade, Google has been working to curb the carbon emissions from its operations. In 2007, Google became the first major company to go carbon neutral. But carbon neutral is not the same as carbon free. As Michael Terrell, Director of Operations and Head of Energy Market Strategy at Google, says:
“Being carbon neutral means that you’re still emitting carbon into the atmosphere from your operations. You’re just going out and you’re buying offsets to cover that. So you’re planting trees. You’re capturing methane emissions from landfills. But you’re not changing the way you actually operate. You’re going out and you’re buying offsets to sort of zero them out, it’s almost an accounting exercise.”
To run on carbon-free energy everywhere at all times is another story, even a moonshot. But the goalpost has been set and Google is well on its way to eliminating carbon from its operations by 2030.
Google has identified three key pillars to achieve this unprecedented goal. First, they will continue to purchase clean energy for their operations and target a mix of carbon-free sources to support the company’s hourly energy consumption, around the world. Second, Google will use technology to better optimize its energy use, and work with partners to scale up next-generation clean energy technologies across the world. Third, Google will take part in advocating for public policies that can transform entire electricity systems.
In doing so, Google aims to help elevate carbon-free energy from a limited part of the global electricity supply to a resource that can power the entire electric grid. Not only will Google’s operations be operating on round-the-clock clean energy by 2030, but the groundwork they are laying will make it possible for others to follow in their footsteps. Or, one might say, their carbon free footprints.