When most users type in a Google search, they don’t consider the energy that is necessary to produce the output of that search. A user can comprehend the electricity necessary to power their individual laptop or mobile device, but for most, comprehension of the infrastructure powering their search stops at the screen. However, behind every Google search, there is a data center, and in order to keep that data center running, energy must be expended. In 2011, Google disclosed that the amount of energy the company uses to power its data centers equates to the amount of electricity needed to power 200,000 homes and that a single Google search expends as much electricity as turning on a 60W lightbulb for 17 seconds (source: “Google Details, and Defends, Its Use of Electricity”, James Glanz, NY Times, 2011). While Google does not release their official energy statistics, in 2015, journalists speculated that Google uses over 1,900 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to power their data centers, an amount equivalent to the annual electricity needed to power the entire country of Turkey (“The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge”, Ingrid Burrington, The Atlantic, 2015). Additionally, one study predicts that a tablet streaming an hour of video per week consumes annually more electricity than two new refrigerators operating in a year (“The Cloud Begins with Coal” Mark P Mills, National Mining Association, 2013).
This reliance on electricity makes tech companies very vulnerable to the fluctuations of utility prices. Google and other major tech firms have reduced their exposure to the variability of commodity prices, like coal, by investing in renewable resources. In many states, Google and other large corporations are mandated by law to purchase energy from local utilities. In order to stabilize and better forecast energy expenditures, Google has bought long-term power purchase agreements (PPA) from renewable sources. The company then sells the renewable energy back into the grid and buys grid energy for its data centers. Over the past 15 years, Google has established 18 contracts across the world that provide 2.5 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity (“New Windfarms to Power Google Data Centers in Europe” Yevgeniy Sverdlik, Data Center Knowledge, 2016). In the situation where local utility companies do not have a monopoly on the electric grid, Google has sought to directly utilize renewable energy. The company strategically chose to build a new data center in Eemshaven, Netherlands in order to capitalize on the stable Dutch energy supplies provided through renewable resources (“Google to Build Data Center in Netherlands” New York Times, 2016). Energy efficiency is also built into the design of all Google data farms. Unlike many data driven companies, Google builds its data centers from scratch, ensuring energy efficiency throughout. Google estimates that its data centers use 50% of the energy that other data centers expend (source: google.com).
Data centers aren’t just power hungry, they are also thirsty. In order to keep the servers cool, data centers require a substantial amount of water. Google has experimented with data center designs that reduce the level of water consumption. Google data centers are strategically located so that they can capitalize on physical aspects of the local environment. Each data center is designed a little bit differently so that the company can capitalize on natural cooling and reduce mechanical cooling. In Finland, Google uses the outside sea water and heat transfer to provide electronic cooling. In Oregon, Google has established partnerships with local water and sewer authorities, so that they can reuse and purify gray water to be used in data center cooling. To further promote water management, Google has started investing in rainwater harvesting technology (source: google.com/green/efficiency).
While Google has made strides towards creating sustainable data centers. Monopoly utilities continue to create a barrier for the company. Google data centers in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and overseas in Taiwan and Singapore do not run on renewable energy sources (“2015 Clicking Clean Report” Green Peace, 2016). Google creates enough energy that they have leverage. The company should invest more in policy to expand renewable energy options in these monopoly entrenched environments. Additionally, Google should consider investing in their own renewable generation capacity. This will increase pressure on the utility companies and potentially pave the way for smaller companies to have access to renewable resources. Investing in renewable resources is a luxury that most organizations with data centers cannot afford. While Facebook, Apple, or Google can strong arm the local utility companies into providing renewable power, a small company does not have enough leverage. If Google is truly committed to creating a more energy efficient online, then the corporation needs to take on a stronger advocacy role and improve access to renewable resources both for their own data centers and also for those of smaller organizations.
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