Achieving Google's new 24/7 clean energy goal will require both the adoption of new technologies, and new purchasing options, the company's head of global energy markets and policy said Thursday on a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) panel.
Google is designing an "intelligent computing platform" that aligns its operations with the availability of renewable energy resources, Jeff Riles said. The company is also using machine learning to optimize its wind energy assets, and plans to procure additional generation, he said.
Eighty percent of offsite corporate procurement takes place in regions with access to competitive wholesale markets, according to Bryn Baker, director of policy innovation at the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.
Technology will play a central role in achieving Google's most ambitious — and final — renewable energy target, Riles said. But access to wholesale energy markets, he said, is also critical.
Demand for Google's services grows each year, Riles said, and that in turn is driving the company's energy consumption, which he said exceeded 12 terawatt-hours in 2019 and is expected to continue to grow.
"Energy is the biggest cost of operating Google's infrastructure," Riles said, "with a price tag in the hundreds of millions."
Despite this, Riles told NARUC, Google achieved net carbon neutrality in 2007, and in 2017 became the first company to match 100% of its of its energy consumption with purchases of clean energy. However, due to the variability of renewable resources like wind and solar, the company's data centers still draw power from coal and gas generation 39% of the time on an hourly basis.
Round-the-clock "carbon-free energy today represents the final and most challenging step in our clean energy journey," Riles said.
Google will meet this goal at least partially using software in development by the company that will align the firm's energy load with the availability of renewable energy by scheduling power-intensive computing operations when the cleanest energy is available on the grid, Riles said. Google is also using machine learning to optimize its wind generation assets by aligning company operations with weather reports — efforts Riles said have boosted the value of wind energy to the company by 20%.
However, Riles said Google believes it will be necessary to look to generation technologies beyond wind and solar in order to achieve its 24/7 goal — and that access to competitive energy markets will be a "big part of the strategy."
Baker, who also spoke on the panel alongside Riles as well as Microsoft's Head of Data Center Energy Strategy Mariah Kennedy, and Chairman Carrie Zalewski of the Illinois Commerce Commission, joined Google's call for the creation of RTOs across the nation. Over the last five years, Baker said, corporate buyers have deployed 30 gigawatts of renewable energy, with 80% of those deals taking place in regions with access to wholesale energy markets.
"Wholesale markets are foundational to customer renewable energy access and greening the grid overall," Baker said, citing a joint analysis with consulting firm Brattle that examined the impact of various policies on customer renewable procurement. She said their research found that while the expansion of renewable energy portfolios and utility subscription programs both help promote the adoption of renewable energy, wholesale markets were more effective at both increasing customer access to renewable energy and at reducing energy costs.
Wholesale markets may also become more attractive to large corporate customers, whom Baker said are turning their attention to focus on eliminating, rather than offsetting, carbon emissions.
"What that really presents us with," she said, "is the question of how do we unlock and unleash all this demand by customers across the country?"