By Ryan Moin, MESM, August, 2017
Did you know that the City of Palo Alto’s energy demand (108 Megawatts) is only moderately higher than what is needed to run the NSA data center in Utah? (90 Megawatts). Data centers are exceptionally energy intensive to operate, and their prevalence in Silicon Valley has presented an opportunity for leadership on energy policy.
Last month, the Trump Administration delivered an official notice to the United Nations that the U.S. intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The original announcement in June, left millions of private citizens deeply concerned. Thousands of companies, cities, counties, universities and colleges have joined together in the “We Are Still In” movement, to petition the administration to not renege on the Paris climate treaty.
In Silicon Valley, the tech giants have signed on to the We Are Still In movement as well, including: Google, Apple, Amazon, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo, eBay, Facebook, and Intel. The near unanimous solidarity of Silicon Valley’s tech sector with the We’re Still In Movement is especially significant because these heavily data-driven businesses are reliant on massive computer systems, which are housed in large facilities, and called data centers. Data centers are extremely energy intensive to run. In fact it is estimated that data centers alone account for 3 percent of global energy demand. Having iconic Silicon Valley companies, which rely on large, energy intensive data centers, maintain climate conscious policy, sets a positive example, and provides a blueprint for skeptics, and newcomers. This value on green power for data centers is especially important now, as this type of infrastructure and associated energy demand is expected to expand rapidly in the future.
Among the laudable efforts on climate by Silicon Valley based tech companies, Google stands out. In its 2016 Environmental Report, Google states that in 2017, its global operations would be powered by 100% renewable energy – including both data centers and offices, and that it is now the largest corporate buyer of renewable power. Google also states that its data centers are now 50% more energy efficient than the industry average. Google explains that renewable energy was also sensible for the company from an economic-standpoint, as wind and solar power have decreased in cost by 60 and 80 percent respectively over the past six years.
Alongside the achievements of Silicon Valley’s tech sector in setting a precedent for climate action, are further opportunities. For example, it is known that there are companies which have 100% renewable energy powered facilities, and yet have a manufacturing supply chain with suboptimal emissions.
There is a need for a standardized reporting platform, that is accessible and user friendly for the public. While many companies are doing great work on climate, there is potential for “greenwashing” under the status quo, because companies do not necessarily have to provide much detail on how they account for their statistics.
An important performance metric that should also be accounted for as companies report on their renewable energy use is “Renewable Energy Credits,” or RECs. Renewable energy credits are a troublesome metric because while some correspond to drawing power from the same regional grid where the company facility is located, in other cases the power source can be distant, in which case the RECs are termed “unbundled.” The problem with unbundled renewable energy credits is that existing renewable energy is effectively being siphoned off. This misses the purpose of incentivizing the addition of new renewable energy sources to the electric grid.
A number of leading Silicon Valley tech companies are ahead of the curve in spirit and action, in the local and statewide effort to keep alive the progress that was started in Paris in 2015. As these corporate leaders continue to release comprehensive reports, they will serve as ever-more compelling examples to their corporate peers.