Google`s Environmental Endeavors

If you’re one of the few that still doesn’t believe in global warming, then this article isn’t for you. Because even those who refuse to do anything about it can still accept the barrage of facts and scientific data that support climate change. Unfortunately, this isn’t the time or place to get into such things, but I can tell you about the many initiatives sponsored by Google to help combat this worsening issue.

Google has two main objectives in terms of solving the climate problem: diminish greenhouse gas emissions and help underprivileged communities adjust to the changes that have already occurred. Obviously, they aren’t just talking about the United States; rather, they are concerned with brutally poor societies in Africa, Asia, and South America. Google wants to help them deal with the effects of rising sea levels and drought, among other things.

In order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Google has decided to thoroughly invest in making energy more efficient, namely clean and renewable energy sources. Back in June 2007, Google went public and said they would become completely carbon-neutral by the end of the year. To be carbon-neutral, a company must balance the amount of carbon released with the amount of carbon sequestered. With more and more companies saying they intend to be fully carbon-neutral, one can only hope it grows from a trend into a corporate necessity.

First, Google calculated their own carbon output by adding up the emissions from purchased electricity, business travel, employee commuting to and from work, server manufacturing, and construction. In order to counterbalance this now, they’ve started investing in renewable energy projects around the world. Urs Hoelzle, senior vice president of operations at Google, had this to say about these international endeavors:

By investing in projects elsewhere in the world that cut the overall amount of greenhouse gases, we can help reduce climate impact now while we develop more sustainable strategies for the future.

This sounds like a good start but it might be too soon to determine whether any of these international projects have had any effect. In fact, according the nonprofit group ClimateCounts, who kept a scorecard evaluating the top Internet companies’ efforts to reduce their impact on the climate, Google ranked well behind Yahoo and Microsoft. However, this scorecard was totaled before Google announced any of their major plans concerning this issue, which I will be going over throughout the rest of this article, so judge for yourself whether Google is on the right track.

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One of the first things Google decided to invest in was a green transportation initiative, plunking down $!0 million for research and development of plug-in hybrid vehicles. As you might guess, they are the same as conventional hybrids except that the batteries can be recharged by connecting a plug to a power source. The exact definition, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, would require them to have a battery storage system of at least 4 kW/h to power the vehicle, a means of charging from an external source, and be capable of traveling at least 10 miles in all-electric mode (no gasoline used).

Plug-ins greatly reduce the amount of gasoline needed to power a vehicle. The total cost to operate plug-in hybrids has been estimated at more than 75 percent less than if you used gasoline, and they are capable of using no fossil fuel if the batteries are charged from a renewable energy source. As of now the plug-in hybrid is in the production stage with Toyota, GM, and Ford being the only major auto makers intending to produce them. Can you imagine yourself driving to work or the store and the parking lot is filled with individual plug-in stations for your car?

(Toyota Prius with hybrid plug-in conversion)

Google has been investing into nonprofit organizations’ research and development (over $1 million), but this is the first time they’ve embarked into private sector funding. The whole endeavor, called Recharge IT, involves accepting proposals to accelerate plug-in hybrid development. Google has already created test fleets with plug-in adapters and tested them against their conventional hybrid counterparts. Check the results here.

The Google RFP (request for proposals) is not only for the research and development of plug-in hybrids but includes fully electric vehicles and any kind of vehicle-to-grid solutions. They are even willing to accept proposals for efficient battery and storage technology. Google issued this statement:

While $10 million is a fraction of the total investment needed to transform our transportation sector, we hope the RFP will help catalyze a broader response.

Within the company itself, Google offers their employees in the San Fransisco Bay area a company-sponsored shuttle service, which more than 1500 employees use. The service provides transportation throughout the city. The company also offers a rebate to employees that purchase vehicles of a certain fuel-efficiency standard. So far, several hundred employees have taken advantage of this opportunity.

Please keep reading to find out more about Google’s broader environmental endeavors, going beyond the transportation sector, which makes up just 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s still leaving out 80 percent of the problem. Google to the rescue!

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Earlier this year, Google completed their solar panel installation project at their Mountain View, CA headquarters. They installed a total of 9,212 panels, which is the largest corporate solar installation in the U.S. As of now, the solar panels produce 1.6 megawatts of renewable energy, which is a start toward their goal of having a 50 megawatt renewable generating capacity. At their new office in Hyderabad, India, solar powered hot water modules provide the hot water for the entire building. Back in California, solar powered carport structures allow their employees to charge their hybrid vehicles. And like the rebates mentioned in the previous section, Google offers discounts to employees who decide to add solar panels to their house.

This is all part of a larger plan in which Google has been investing in forms of renewable energy, like solar, but also wind, fuel cells, and geothermal energy. The main goal is to produce electricity more cheaply from renewable energy sources than the amount of money it costs to produce it from coal, which supplies about 40 percent of the world’s electricity. For the project to be successful, Google wants to be able to produce 1 gigawatt of renewable energy capacity. Whereas the 50 megawatt goal was for the company alone, 1 gigawatt is capable of powering a city the size of San Fransisco.

So far, Google is working with two companies in particular: eSolar Inc., which concentrates on creating solar power capable of replacing the fuel from traditional power plants, and Makani Power Inc., which specializes in wind energy.

In terms of money, Google plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars. It will take an extremely large amount of investment from companies and organizations like Google in order to make solar energy cheaper than coal, which currently it is not. Hence the name of the project RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal). Right now, coal costs around 2 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour, so renewable energy will need to drop to around 1 to 3 cents. There are those who say geothermal and wind energy are capable of being that cheap now, but only under the right conditions.

Google stands to benefit from the cheap electricity by reducing the energy costs of running their huge data centers and can also license any technology that comes out of this endeavor to other companies seeking to reduce energy costs and emissions. There is indeed a debate concerning Google’s true intentions, whether they are truly being good Samaritans or are simply in it for the money. Please keep reading for more discussion and my own opinion.

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Included among the companies investing in clean energy solutions are Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, and Wal-Mart. Could they all be that interested in the environment, or are they, along with Google, just trying to boost their image? After all, Wal-mart, just to give an example, has had their fair share of controversy regarding worker’s rights, so jumping on the global warming bandwagon would be a nice way to clean up their reputation.

One of the controversial aspects of going green, specifically carbon-neutral, is purchasing “carbon offsets,” which involves paying others to plant trees to absorb the carbon dioxide that you, as a company, will be emitting. And Google’s founders admitted doing this when they were confronted with using a private Boeing 767. Add this to all of the other financial benefits they stand to gain and all of a sudden Google looks kind of sinister.

The fact of the matter is that Google wouldn’t do anything if it didn’t benefit them in some way. Even, the philanthropic branch of the company through which these projects are run, is for-profit. So it’s nice that they’re doing anything at all, because they’re certainly not obligated. Ron Pernick, co-founder of the energy research company Clean Edge, has said that venture capital investment from private companies in the U.S. into clean energy was $2.4 billion. Regarding Google’s investment he says, “What they did today was to put a stake in the ground saying, ‘Let’s get renewable energy to be cost-competitive with coal.’ That’s the differentiator that shows vision and commitment.” At least Google has some regard for what kind of impact their company has and aren’t all about the dollar.

Personally, I think Google will be just as happy with the awareness they raise and even happier if they can somehow mitigate greenhouse gas emissions just one iota. Think about it. If you had money to spend, would you think of spending it altruistically or on yourself?

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