The Coal Truth about Google’s energy use

Google, like every company, can only get a small percentage of its electricity from unreliable “renewable” sources like solar and wind–which need 24/7 life support. But since being “100% renewable” is fashionable and Google is rich, Google pays others to take the blame for its massive use of reliable, “non-renewable” coal, gas, and nuclear power.

The Claim

For more than a decade, companies have looked for opportunities to join the fashionable trend of “going green,” winning themselves praise from celebrities, the media, and political leaders, while drawing in “socially conscious” customers and investors.

An increasingly popular way that companies are establishing their green bona fides is by declaring that they get all of their energy from “renewable” sources like the sun and the wind.

Recently tech giant Google joined that trend, claiming it is powered by 100% renewable energy, predominantly wind and solar power, helping move us toward its vision of “a zero-carbon world where everyone everywhere has access to clean, carbon-free energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.” Google plasters these claims of being “100% renewable” all over its website, in PRs, reports, and interviews, praising itself for “promoting cleaner energy for a better future.”

By portraying itself as a “green” leader Google has been able to gain status as a forward-looking, idealistic company spearheading a politically popular cause–and to position itself as superior to less “green” companies including the energy producers who, in Google’s words, aren’t “currently very green” (yet who, as we’ll see, supply most of the energy Google actually uses).

The Lie

When companies claim to be “100% renewable” they want us to think they’re getting 100% of their energy from wind and solar, the two most popular forms of “green,” “renewable” energy. But the truth is that Google is relying on local electricity grids to supply its energy needs and no grid on the planet can work with anything close to 100% solar and wind.

Solar and wind are intermittent sources that can never produce the right amount of energy at the right time. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, and so these sources require backup from reliable sources of energy like fossil fuels. What actually powers Google’s operations is a mix of energy sources: mainly fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, as well as nuclear power, hydropower, plus some smaller amount of some solar and wind power.

Take, for example, Google’s data center at Douglas County, Georgia. As Google states on its website, they chose this location because “Douglas County has the right combination of energy infrastructure, developable land, and available workforce for the data center.” What does that energy infrastructure consist of? Unfortunately, Google isn’t very transparent here, but according to data by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Georgia’s power mix for 2016 was dominated by natural gas (40%), coal (28%), and nuclear power (26%). Wind and solar played only a minor role in the single digit percentages.

If you dig beneath the headlines, Google even admits that it doesn’t really run on solar and wind: “Google can’t buy clean energy from our utilities because of regulatory restrictions on our retail contract, and we can’t produce nearly enough of it behind the meter at our data center facilities because of physical and geographical restrictions.” Put simply: Google can’t buy it from utilities because no utility is 100% solar and wind–it can’t produce enough of it because solar and wind are incapable of powering its operations.

So if Google isn’t actually using renewable energy to power 100% of its operations then how can it claim it has reached “100% renewable energy for our global operations”?

Google’s Senior Vice President of Technical Infrastructure, Urs Hölzle, explains it this way: “Over the course of 2017, across the globe, for every kilowatt-hour of electricity we consumed, we purchased a kilowatt-hour of renewable energy from a wind or solar farm that was built specifically for Google.”

In other words, Google uses lots of fossil fuels and nuclear–but it offsets its use of reliable energy by dumping additional unreliable energy onto the grid to be used in part by Google and in part by its neighbors. It’s not using 100% renewables–it’s paying for the privilege of taking credit for renewable energy used by others.

Think of it this way. A grid can get away with adding some renewables, the way a healthy person can tolerate the occasional treat–but trying to run on 100% renewables would be like trying to survive on 100% chocolate. Imagine, though, that you wanted to sell people on the fantasy that it was possible to thrive on an all-chocolate diet. Since you can’t actually live on Hershey’s bars and M&Ms, you get nine friends who all agree to replace 10% of their meals with chocolate and you pay them in exchange for “chocolate energy credits.” Then you advertise to the world how you get 100% of your energy from “healthy” chocolate while your friends are forced to deny their chocolate consumption.

That’s basically what Google is doing with its energy accounting sleight of hand. Just as we wouldn’t praise a 100% chocolate advocate for bankrolling free packets of M&Ms to be dumped in school cafeterias so we shouldn’t praise Google for using its Adwords profits to dump unreliable energy on the grid for consumers.

The Damage

The real news here is not that Google has “reached” 100% renewable–it’s that solar and wind are so inferior that even one of the richest companies on earth can’t power itself through 100% renewable energy despite desperately wanting to.

That should make us incredibly skeptical of policies that favor solar and wind and restrict affordable, reliable sources of energy like coal. Instead, Google is using the status it gains from being a “green” leader to actively push for anti-fossil fuel policies that will make energy more expensive for millions of Americans and billions around the world.

Google’s millionaires and billionaires may be able afford to pay higher electricity costs in order to appear “green.” But for poorer Americans, who already spend upwards of 20% of their income on energy, increasing that burden means they have less to spend on everything else–food, clothing, housing, medicine. They have to make painful choices like: a warm home or a necessary medication—a running air conditioner or fresh food.

Our Demands

As members of the coal industry, we are proud of our contribution to the digital world and we deserve credit for helping to power it. But Google’s lies and the lies of the entire 100% renewable movement not only deprive us of credit for our contribution–they help convince voters to pass anti-fossil fuel policies that are driving us out of business.

That is bad for us–and it’s bad for everyone. When tech leaders promote bad energy policies they ultimately restrict access to energy for billions of people–with the poorest people hurting most.

Here’s what Google must do to right these wrongs:

  1. Retract: Google should remove all mentions of “100% renewable” from its messaging.
  2. Apologize: Google should publicly apologize to all Americans including the workers of the coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear industries.
  3. Educate: Google should publicly acknowledge the vital role of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear for decades to come.

You can help stop this injustice: email Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, asking him to apologize–and share The Coal Truth about Google.