Google's new tarrif approach for their green data centers: Is it greenwashing?
Kevin William Grant
Published on
December 31, 2020

Google is expanding its North Carolina data centre. Google is setting up a renewable energy tariff with its utility company to reduce the risk of protests about the emissions generated by the large amount of electricity being used. Is it greenwashing?

As part of a $600 million (USD) expansion of the data centre, Google is making a new agreement with its electricity  provider, Duke Energy, to pay a tariff which will be used for specific renewable energy projects owned and operate by Duke.

Google argues in a white paper that this approach will often be more effective than strategies that generate renewable power onsite, or use renewable energy certificates or other green tariffs.

Google's Green Energy Tariff

Data centres have been criticized by environmental activists, such as Greenpeace, for using fossil fuel generated electricity (dirty energy).

Google has backed green energy, investing $1 billion (USD) in wind and solar energy. Recently Google has shifted to buying renewable energy from providers. An examples of renewable energy purchased by Google is the 3260MW of wind energy sourced from the Grand River Dam Authority in Oklahoma.

Google has positioned these activities as tactics that encourage utilities to move toward renewable energy sources. This is also a way for Google to greenwash it's activities.

“Before today, even large energy users in North Carolina were only offered dirty energy by Duke Energy: coal, nuclear and gas. In living up to its commitment of powering 100 percent of its operations with renewable energy, Google has given Duke Energy the push it needed to offer a Renewable Tariff which could finally mean access to clean energy for Duke Energy’s customers in North Carolina.”

Apple is taking an on-site green energy approach by moving its North Carolina data centre onto its own renewable energy, using a large solar farm.

What is a Green Data Centre

A green data centre is a repository for the storage, management, and dissemination of data in which the mechanical, lighting, electrical and computer systems are designed for maximum energy efficiency and minimum environmental impact. The construction and operation of a green data centre includes advanced technologies and strategies. Here are some examples:

  • Minimizing the footprints of the buildings
  • The use of low-emission building materials, carpets and paints
  • Sustainable landscaping
  • Waste recycling
  • Installation of catalytic converters on backup generators
  • The use of alternative energy technologies such as photovoltaics, heat pumps, and evaporative cooling
  • The use of hybrid or electric company vehicles

Building and certifying a green data centre or other facility can be expensive up front, but long-term cost savings can be realized on operations and maintenance. Another advantage is the fact that green facilities offer employees a healthy, comfortable work environment. In addition, green facilities enhance relations with local communities.

There is growing pressure from environmentalists and, increasingly, the general public for governments to offer green incentives: monetary support for the creation and maintenance of ecologically responsible technologies.


What is Greewashing?

Greewashing is a form of marketing spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's aims and policies are environmentally friendly. Whether it is to increase profits or gain political support, greenwashing may be used to manipulate popular opinion to support otherwise questionable aims.

The term Greenwashing is used when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being green (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), rather than spending resources on environmentally sound practices.

This is often portrayed by changing the name or label of a product to evoke the natural environment or nature—for example, putting an image of a forest on a bottle containing harmful chemicals.

Environmentalists often use greenwashing to describe the actions of energy companies, which are traditionally the largest polluters.


How Google Makes Really Good Data Centres

1. Build data centres across the globe

Focus on the users and everything else will follow: Google’s audience is global, so it’s not surprising that the search giant is looking to build data centres across the globe to serve different regions of the world. geolocating servers improves performance by brining the data centre geographically closer to the user. YouTube video playback performance would definitely suffer without local data centres streaming video to your mobile device.

By placing servers as close to users as possible, Google reduces the time it takes for users to use its tools and do search queries. Google processes 1 billion search queries (globally) per month. Picking locations, and constructing data centres, is ultimately a user experience issue for Google.

2. Google knows how to build data centres really, really well

Google has built as many as 40 data centres. Google has the process of finding a location and building a facility down to a science. Google's data centre qualifications include finding a good local workforce and accessing a robust electric grid. More recently, Google has increased the importance of greener issues like finding a location where the utility offers a significant amount of renewable energy.

3. Faster is better than slow

Google's philosophy on efficiency includes how Google uses electricity to power servers.

How quickly Google designs and builds data centres is equally important. Google's data centre in Georgia took 16 months rather than 2-3 years. Google has created a set of standards for designing and building data centres that they use to rapidly build new data centres.

4. Continue to learn, adapt, evolve, and build new skills

Google is currently on the fifth generation of its data centre design. Google still continues to learn and improve their processes. Sometimes that means that Google has to learn techniques and skills outside of its core competency.

The need to cool servers and reduce wasteful energy consumption has forced Google to develop an expertise in designing systems to transfer and use energy more efficiently. Google makes the most use of the indoor space of its data centres. The designed the server layout  to maximize the effectiveness of cooling systems.

5. Make money without doing harm

Reusing waste water is a good example of something that Google can do for both economic and ecological reasons.

In Belgium, Google has built its water treatment plant to take water from a nearby canal that is suitable for industrial use. The Georgia data centre also uses treated wastewater for cooling.