Google isn’t investing billions into clean energy projects only to feel good and make employees happy.The company is doing it because the bottomline results are supported by data. “While fossil-based prices are on a cost curve that goes up, renewable prices are on this march downward,” said Rick Needham, director of energy and sustainability at Google, during a presentation at the Cleantech Forum taking place in San Francisco. Even if you factor in how fracking has reduced the cost of gas in many regions, the pricing trends generally point toward renewables.
The reason, one could argue, centers on the energy source. The renewable industry revolves around developing and mass manufacturing technologies—efficient turbines, solar panels—to harvest somewhat limitless, omnipresent natural resources. The fossil industry revolves around applying technology to tapping resources that are much harder to extract. Hence, fossil fuels tend to be more volatile in price. (Think of it: you wake up because of the sun every day, not because of the stench from a passing methane cloud.)
Some of his data points:
- 49% of the new capacity commissioned in the U.S. in 2012 was renewable. 10GW of that new capacity, or 40%, came from wind. More wind capacity was installed than natural gas capacity last year in the U.S. Wind outpaced coal by 2X.
- The “capacity factor” or the percentage of time that wind turbines are active has increased, he added. Capacity factors now hit 50 percent, thanks to better site selection and improved turbine efficiency. In the past, capacity factor was closer to 30%. Wind farms in optimal sites in the Midwest can produce power for 5 cents a kilowatt hour, and that’s before federal tax credits, he said.
- The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) from solar plants in the U.S. dropped by 28% in the past year. Solar panels have dropped in price by 80 percent over the last five years.
- Solar will soon be at cost parity in many markets in the world. Parity is already being achieved in Italy, Spain and Australia.
- The 240 EV chargers in the parking lots support a corporate EV fleet that has logged 500,000 miles.
- Google has procured 260MW of wind power. Some wind contracts will provide Google power at stable prices for up to 20 years.
- The company has also invested $1 billion directly into alternative power projects that will generate over 2GW of power, or twice as much power as Google used in 2011.
Google has also invested heavily in efficiency.
- An employee frustrated with his commute inspired Google to set up its own van pool. Now, 4,500 employees ride on the Google shuttle fleet. The custom-built coaches run on a biodiesel blend and come equipped with WiFi so employees can work during the commute. It has taken 3,000 cars off the road and reduces carbon emissions by 16,000 tons annually.
- Plus, the van pool lets Google use parking spaces for more productive uses. (Real estate actually has become one of the big hidden benefits for many companies when it comes to efficiency incentives, so say building management companies, modular builders and people that develop technology that reduces the amount of air conditioners and backup systems you need for data centers.)
- Google’s data centers use half as much power as conventional ones. The company has saved over $1 billion in energy costs through data center initiatives. (Author’s note: you’re probably wondering about the photo of the Lego structure. That is the first Google storage system ever. You can see it in the Gates building on the Stanford campus.)