Just as food fuels humans, electricity supplies data centers with the ability to help people around the world make searches on search engines like Google, watch YouTube videos, and anything you could ever think of with a touch of a keyboard or swipe of a screen. Google alone bought more than seven billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2017, (which is roughly the size of consumption in Rhode Island). They purchased it from solar and wind farms from around the world. These were constructed specifically for the tech giant, so that they could match consumption while being mindful of their carbon footprint. 

Yet, while it was a pretty exciting feat, it’s just the beginning of a long, challenging journey, with the main goal to be to source carbon-free energy to match every Google data center facility at all times. 

In 2018, Google published a study that examined the sources of Google’s energy around the world. The paper revealed how many data centers are performing better than others. It also used Carbon-Heat maps to show energy profiles in Google data centers at an hourly rate. 

Here’s what Google learned about how we might someday attain carbon-free energy. 

Solar Energy Needs to Be Like a 7-Eleven

First things first, Google still relies on carbon-based power. However, it’s a mix, where renewable sources like solar panels and wind energy are readily used.  But coal, natural gas, and oil are also utilized, especially when wind energy decreases or the sun doesn’t shine. Another reason may be that the Google facility is in a region where there’s limited access to energy that’s carbon-free. How do they get around this? Google will purchase lots of renewable energy. Where you may ask? In regions like the Midwest to counteract regions where they are unable to purchase renewable energy, like in Asia.

solar panels installation company residential homes 3 - Why Can't Solar Power Be As Accessible as The Internet?

In the end, the solar and wind energy purchases and the nonrenewable ones cancel each other out. While it’s not ideal, it’s a start. But really solar energy needs to be ready to go around the clock like a 7-Eleven. It needs to always be open for business and it doesn’t close up shop at night. And 7-Elevens are everywhere, so it also needs to be accessible. 

Measuring a Data Center’s Electricity

What exactly is carbon-free energy? It’s basically any kind of power that doesn’t give off carbon dioxide. Something Google did with this study is look at an hour-to-hour basis of electricity at a data center and then juxtapose it with solar energy or wind power generation on the regional grid. This allows Google to figure out how a data center’s consumption measures up against carbon-free power, and if the regional renewable energy matches or is greater than the data center’s electricity over the course of an hour, then data center consumption is matched with carbon-free consumption. 

Think of it like a household of two voting in the next presidential election: One is a Republican and the other is a Democrat. The vote essentially doesn’t count because they canceled each other out (assuming that both voters voted). 

Solar Power Success Depends on Region

Unfortunately, 24-7 matched consumption doesn’t happen. Ever. None of the Google campuses experienced this. However, a data center in Finland revealed that their consumption went head to head with regional solar power hour to hour for a little bit, so it’s possible. One reason why this may have happened is because Finland has a competitive market for solar energy. Another reason is that Finland’s power grid already has a ton of carbon-free energy output sources. 

When it comes to areas outside of Finland, Google experienced mixed results with facilities like in North Carolina that did well during the day but experienced more energy consumption at night when the sun went down. This makes perfect sense because of course solar power and energy would be more rampant during the day, when, you know, the sun is out. At night, it naturally gets more challenging not to leave a carbon footprint.

google sustainability renewable energy graph finland - Why Can't Solar Power Be As Accessible as The Internet?
Photo Credit: Google

google sustainability renewable energy graph north carolina - Why Can't Solar Power Be As Accessible as The Internet?
Photo Credit: Google

Moving Forward

Obviously, creating a carbon-free, renewable landscape isn’t going to be a walk in the park. But with wildfires, flooding, and other inclement weather screaming to humans that something’s up with the planet, the time is now to figure out solutions or walk in the parks will no longer be possible. Google has offered many ideas and has remained active in its efforts to do some A/B testing and get results. This even includes purchasing twice as much renewable energy (wind and solar, mainly) in regions so that they might try to attain 24-7 carbon-free consumption.

But it’s going to take more than Google. It’s going to take new laws, policies, restrictions, and businesses to do this. At least it’s good to know that when you make a Google search, Google is on its own search as well (pun intended).

For homeowners: The lack of solar power at night isn’t an issue as most people use very little electricity while sleeping. However, many businesses run 24-7, and to power large facilities requires quite a bit of energy. Storing energy in batteries is the next logical step, but battery technology is still not quite there yet. Perhaps Google is working on that aspect as well.

About the Author:
RedFox Solar is a solar panel representative offering green energy solutions to the USA.

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Google Environment Projects: ‘The Internet is 24×7—carbon-free energy should be too