Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google envisions its latest campus as the embodiment of a grander ambition to run its operations entirely free of carbon.

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future
A bicyclist rides past a building under construction on the Google campus in Mountain View, California, U.S. in Dec. 2020. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Google Bay View, the company’s newest campus, consists of three squat buildings nestled near the San Francisco Bay shoreline a few miles east of its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The first things visitors notice are the roofs.

They curve down gently from pinched peaks, like circus tents, sloping almost to the ground. Each roof is blanketed with overlapping solar panels that glisten with a brushed metal sheen on the edges. Google calls this design Dragonscale, and indeed it looks as if a mystical beast is curled up by the water in Silicon Valley.

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google envisions its latest campus as the embodiment of a grander ambition to run its operations entirely free of carbon. The company plans to open Bay View in January to “a limited number” of employees, depending on the pandemic. Beneath the buildings, thousands of concrete pillars plunged into the ground will serve as a sort of geothermal battery, storing heat to warm the building and water supply without natural gas. The roof panels were constructed with a unique textured glass to prevent glare and with canopies that emit a soft, glowing light into the spacious atria inside. “We call this the Cathedral of Work,” says Asim Tahir, who oversees energy decisions in Google’s real estate division. He stands by the southern entrance in a hard hat, mask, and safety vest.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google and its parent Alphabet Inc., pokes his head inside for a look. During the pandemic, construction crews had set strict rules limiting entry for guests, even the boss. It’s the first Friday of September, and the normally reserved executive is eager to talk to Bloomberg Green about his company’s climate ambitions. Outside, the air is thick with wildfire smoke, a new annual reality for all of California. Hurricane Ida is pummeling the East Coast. Each disaster underscores how late corporate America is to the climate change fight.

“I wish we were at this moment a decade earlier,” Pichai admits. “I’m worried and very anxious we’re losing time.”

Last year, Pichai announced Google’s plan to run every office and data center on electricity from clean sources, around the clock. He set 2030 as the deadline, marking perhaps the most ambitious corporate commitment to decarbonization ever. Google calls it a moonshot, the term it reserves for audacious—and so far mostly fruitless—projects such as self-driving cars and delivery drones. “It’s a bit stressful,” Pichai says, “because we don’t fully have all the answers to get there.”

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google’s data centers, which house the servers that power billions of web searches, emails, and mapping routes every day, account for most of its electricity consumption: 15.1 million megawatt-hours in 2020. Last year, Google met 67% of its data center electricity needs with renewable sources on an hourly basis, a 6% jump from the prior year. Data centers in certain places, such as Oklahoma and Oregon, run on close to or above 90% clean sources.

But getting off carbon elsewhere is a bigger challenge, and Google is aiming well beyond typical corporate targets. Dozens of companies have pledged to reach carbon neutrality, covering their energy usage either with renewable sources or offsets. (A carbon offset is a credit companies can buy that stands in for one ton of emissions that otherwise would have polluted the atmosphere; the money is supposed to go toward emissions-reducing projects.)

Apple Inc. achieved carbon neutrality with its own operations and vowed to do the same with its supply chain by 2030. Inc. promised to be carbon neutral by 2040. Google aims to go even further. It’s committed to go free of carbon, without using offsets and relying only on clean energy purchased near its locations, 24 hours a day. That means in Chile, where solar panels power Google’s data center during the day, the company must find a solution when the sun sets. In dense Taiwan and Singapore, where its data centers run almost entirely on fossil fuels, it must find massive amounts of green alternatives very quickly.

To hit its goal, Google is relying on unorthodox procurement contracts and a grab bag of novel technologies such as lithium-ion battery storage, algorithms that predict wind patterns, and geothermal wells that drill into the Earth’s crust. Earlier this summer, Microsoft Corp. followed Google with another pledge to go carbon-free 24/7. These companies, pioneers of innovation worth trillions, are trying to cut out carbon while still maintaining spectacular growth: Google and Microsoft added more than $91 billion in profits last year as much of the economy contracted. Although they’re huge and influential energy consumers, they’re mostly at the mercy of antiquated utilities built on fossil fuels. Google knows this. “The ultimate solution is to get the power grids to carbon-free all the time,” says Michael Terrell, Google’s director of energy. “We still don’t know the path everywhere, and that’s really challenging.”

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google’s environmental record isn’t spotless. Critics have charged it with funding politicians who deny global warming, accepting green-washing advertisements, and boosting climate conspiracies on YouTube. Employees have condemned its cloud-computing deals with oil companies. Google server farms use considerable amounts of water. Yet the company’s approach to renewable energy—it purchased 15.4 million megawatt-hours in 2020—has earned widespread praise. Risk management company MSCI Inc. grades Google poorly on governance and social impact, citing its numerous competition lawsuits; on environmental issues, it gives Google perfect marks.

Pichai has pledged that Google’s climate work will create more than 20,000 clean energy jobs and help hundreds of cities reduce carbon footprints. Google will need to spend considerable amounts to become carbon-free, and it might have to curb its enormous appetite for computing horsepower.

Still, the effort makes business sense for Pichai, who says Google’s investments will drive down costs for existing renewables and spur new ones. Google will try selling some energy efficiency technologies, too. Tech employees are starting to demand greener business practices and sustainable workspaces such as the Bay View campus, not simply as niceties but as vital parts of making the future livable. Pichai says businesses that don’t get off carbon will be left in the dust. “If you don’t do this correctly, you won’t be able to attract talent,” he says. “When I look at the younger generation, people who are teenagers now, I can’t see them making the choice to work for a company which they feel is polluting.”

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Google began planning its Bay View campus in 2015, but its design ideas took seed well before then. The company’s founders had a crunchy California streak, demanding its first offices include low-impact carpets and recyclable materials. Tinkering staff once stuck 12 bores into the pavement as an early geothermal experiment, which pumped up hot water for a campus cafe. Engineers played around with solar prototypes in a parking lot.

These green projects were also about saving money. Fifteen years ago the search engine was expanding ferociously, adding energy-hungry services such as Gmail and YouTube. “That was always really shocking when you looked at the bill,” recalls Urs Hölzle, a senior vice president and early employee. In 2007, Google installed a 1.6MW solar array atop its headquarters and started a program to fund a slate of renewable projects with the aim of driving their costs below coal—they named the project RE

That year, Google also claimed it had offset all its carbon emissions, though it shared little data. “They said, ‘We’re carbon neutral—trust us,’ ” remembers Gary Cook, who tracked technology companies for Greenpeace Inc.

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With that achievement, Google was hailed in the press as “100% renewable.” Some employees, however, bristled at the technical inaccuracy, according to Hölzle, who oversees Google infrastructure. Google didn’t use renewables 100% of the time. “Take this data center, at this time,” Hölzle recalls the argument. “Clearly it is using coal.” Google needed a better goal.

Google’s Biggest Moonshot Is Its Search for a Carbon-Free Future

Terrell runs the division responsible for energy purchases and utility relations. When Google first considered round-the-clock renewables, he found the prospect “really, really out there.” Google had signed 26 PPAs by 2017, but each required jumping through exhausting regulatory hoops. Solar and wind were getting cheaper, but storing the power they generated wasn’t. Google kept expanding. From 2017 to 2020, it opened 15 new data centers for its consumer and cloud services.

Terrell’s team had to get creative. Typically, when power outages hit a Google site, the company flips to backup generators to keep its services running. In Belgium, Google worked with a local power company, Elia Transmission Belgium SA, to swap out diesel generators for hulking lithium-ion batteries at a data center in St.-Ghislain, near the French border. Terrell says the company is exploring ways to route excess energy stored in the batteries to the local utility provider. “Instead of just having them sit there, why not actually help an operator manage the grid?” he says. He predicts Google will take this elsewhere.

In Nevada, where Google owns a sprawling data center outside Las Vegas, the company cut a deal to buy power from Fervo Energy, a startup working on a novel approach to geothermal. Fervo head Tim Latimer, a former oil engineer, borrowed oil extraction techniques for cleaner aims. Most geothermal wells are dug thousands of feet into the Earth to tap its natural heat; Fervo’s system will also dig horizontally across underground reservoirs to capture more energy. The startup plans to open its first Nevada wells next year. Google is optimistic that green hydrogen and advanced nuclear will emerge as available sources soon, too.

Naturally, Google is also turning to software to tackle the challenge. Engineers developed a tool, called “carbon-intelligent computing platform,” that schedules computing tasks during dips in energy use. Google deems certain activities, such as encoding a YouTube video or adding a new term to Google Translate, “nonurgent,” unworthy of instant gratification. These software tasks are put on hold until enough sunshine or wind is available. Other computer models are used to predict when wind power will be strongest. Google later added a feature for shifting tasks to different data centers.

In Virginia, Google offloaded its 24/7 plan to energy distributor AES Corp. The companies signed a 10-year deal in May, for an undisclosed amount, covering 500MW of renewable projects that AES owns or will buy. The power distributor is relying on a “mix and match” of solar and wind generation as well as its lithium-ion batteries that store energy to deliver for Google, says AES CEO