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Google ramps up clean energy ambition as California wildfires rage

For years now, Google has tried to ensure that every unit of electricity it’s used has at least been matched by a unit of renewable energy generated somewhere else. But in reality that’s only true two thirds of the time.


It announced Monday that it’s going one step further: by 2030, Google will ensure that every unit of electricity it consumes is always 100 per cent carbon-free.


Although the tech giant can offset all of its electricity with renewable energy, when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow it’s still drawing its power from polluting fossil fuels.


The updated commitment will leverage more than $5 billion (U.S.) of investment in five gigawatts of new clean-energy projects over the next decade, according to spokeswoman Jenny Jamie.


It will also create 20,000 new jobs. To get there Google will use a bundle of measures including pairing wind and solar projects, using more batteries to store power and investing in artificial intelligence to improve power demand and forecasting.


“The science is clear: The world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change. We are committed to doing our part,” Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, said in a blog post.


The announcement comes as wild fires rage across California and huge blazes darkened skies in the Bay Area where Google is headquartered.


He also announced that Google offset its historical emissions, effectively clearing its carbon debts for the past 22 years. But those legacy emissions, from 1998 to 2006, are estimated to be smaller than one year of its current net operational emissions — less than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.


Microsoft Corp., which is also one of the world’s biggest buyers of clean power, also announced a similar plan to fine tune its carbon-free target and has also pledged to eliminate its historical emissions debt. But unlike Google, it’s created new financial products that can be added onto existing power purchase agreements and reduce the risk of intermittent renewable technologies.


Future carbon goals are more important for tackling climate change, particularly in expanding companies like Google, which has seen its power demand soar by 450 per cent since 2010, according to BloombergNEF.


The analysts estimate Google will need to buy 15.5 terawatt hours of clean power by 2030 just to keep meeting its existing 100 per cent renewable power target. Much more will be needed to meet its new goal of round-the-clock carbon-free energy.The decision by Google shines a light on the inadequacy of companies using renewable energy certificates to meet their climate targets instead of directly buying power from projects.


For every renewable energy certificate bought, a company is guaranteed that someone somewhere will generate one unit of electricity using renewables. But that doesn’t mean electricity used, say at night, won’t have emissions attached to it.

So despite the certificates officially covering all of Google’s demand, its data centres are only run on clean energy for 65 per cent of a day on average, the company estimated.


“It’s right that Google go beyond certificates to deliver real increases in clean energy capacity,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace U.K. “However, for so many claims made by companies the devil can be in the detail.”


Google said it hopes more companies will follow suit.


“A big part of what we are aiming to do is provide a template and a blueprint, talk to people and show that it’s possible to get to carbon-free operations,” Jamie said.


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