Google is redefining sustainability one click at a time.
By Lillian Schrock
A chance meeting in 1995 gave birth to a legend. Stanford University student Sergey Brin was assigned to show around a prospective student, Larry Page. From there: history. Just Google it. The pioneers went on to complete a research project that would become the world’s premier Internet search engine.
Along the way, Brin and Page promised each other that no matter how grand their company became, Google wouldn’t damage the environment. “They believe that a company can be both sustainable and successful,” said Kate Hurowitz, Google’s senior manager in communications.
That belief resulted in another promise: By the end of 2007, Google would be carbon neutral. It was an ambitious goal, one the company claims it met through the use of carbon offsets. But with over 70 offices worldwide, a fleet of Google Maps cars, 12 data centers and the Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., eliminating the corporation’s carbon footprint hasn’t been simple — or without controversy.
How Google Searches Emit Carbon
You weigh more than you think — a lot more. Your carbon footprint gets heavier every day thanks to the tons of carbon we release every year. Everything you do, everything you make, everything you consume produces carbon. That pound of coffee beans sitting in your cabinet? It took 11 pounds of carbon to make and deliver to your door. Your 20-minute drive to work: 20 pounds of carbon. In fact, the average American has a carbon footprint of 50,000 pounds a year. That amount of carbon dioxide weighs about the same as five school buses.
Of course, Google has a carbon footprint, too. According to its own blog, Google Green, Google produced four billion pounds of carbon in 2012. That’s the weight of 400,000 school buses.
A lot of those carbon emissions come from average active Google users. According to Google, these people conduct 25 searches and watch 60 minutes of YouTube a day, have Gmail accounts and use other Google services. Serving an average active user for a month is like driving a car one mile, according to Google. Add up all the Google customers for a month, and you’ve accumulated as many carbon emissions as you would driving one billion miles. That’s about the distance between Earth and Saturn.
“I think they’re playing games, to be honest with you,” said Philip Houle, an information systems professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
If they are, it’s a numbers game. Ross Morrow, a mechanical engineering professor at Iowa State University, said there are three ways a search engine can emit carbon. The biggest source: the electricity used at Google’s 12 data centers, which house the servers that run Google queries. The second is through the actual production and maintenance of equipment, like servers used in data centers. “That’s fixed, regardless of how many queries we make,” Morrow said. Finally, Google emits carbon because of the business operations needed to keep it up and running, from the engineers and programmers in the offices to the Google Fiber vans roaming around Kansas City.
So what happens when a Googler hits ‘enter’ for a search? “The work that Google is doing on our side — the servers, the networking, all the work that Google is doing to give you the answer — that work is carbon neutral,” Hurowitz said.
And that’s where the math comes in. It’s a matter of volume. Google provides answers to over 100 billion searches every month, the company says. This means the carbon footprint of your particular query is miniscule; small enough to be labeled “carbon neutral.” But those 100 billion searches? They add up. “In one day’s time — however many queries that is — that uses a data center, which then, in turn, consumes electricity and dumps heat into the environment,” Houle said. That definitely leaves a footprint.
Buying Their Way to Neutrality
Google is able to claim carbon neutrality by purchasing carbon offsets, which are credits for reductions in carbon emissions made at another location. “We create carbon emissions, but go to others to help them reduce their carbon emissions,” Hurowitz said.
For example, Google pays a farm in Yadkin County, N.C., to use a machine that helps create more sustainable resources. The machine collects manure and breaks it down into usable fertilizer and methane gas, which can be used for energy and heat.
In 2007, Google completed its first data center in The Dalles, Ore. The two-building complex was built there because of the renewable hydropower of nearby The Dalles Dam. Although using renewable power helped make the data center greener, it didn’t wipe the company’s carbon slate clean. So Urs Hölzle, who oversees the development of Google’s data centers, announced on the company blog that Google was becoming carbon neutral through the use of carbon offsets.
“Hölzle and his team have always been obsessed with energy efficiency and with minimizing our impact on the environment,” Hurowitz said.
Until Google is able to power its operations entirely with renewable energy, the company says it will continue investing in green projects at other businesses.
“They’re saying, ‘We’re emitting carbon, but our emissions are offset by helping others reduce their carbon footprint,’” Houle said. “But the aggregate of it is they’re still producing emissions.”
David Courard-Hauri, an environmental science professor at Drake University, said carbon offsets are controversial because it’s hard to prove that a company wouldn’t have reduced its emissions without Google’s help. However, he believes in the integrity of Google’s efforts to be greener.
“If they pay to do that — if the company really wasn’t going to do it otherwise — then they really have reduced the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” Courard-Hauri said.
Greening Google’s Data Centers
Google’s data centers are large warehouses filled with rows of thousands of computers, which make the buildings stifling hot. There are constantly blinking lights and a loud, consistent humming noise. The computers are never shut off, so you have answers to your Google inquiries at any hour.
“The majority of the energy that Google uses is in our data centers,” Hurowitz said. Half of them are in the United States (the Midwest is home to one in Council Bluffs, Iowa) and of the rest, there’s one each in Chile, Taiwan, Singapore, Finland, Belgium and Ireland.
A large amount of energy is needed not only to run the computers within the warehouses, but also to cool them down. As the servers produce more and more heat while computing data, they’ll perform less effectively, Morrow said. Some Google data centers use carefully designed air-conditioning systems to eliminate the heat problem, while others use alternative means for cooling.
“The first step to reducing our carbon footprint is having efficient data centers,” Hurowitz said. “For every watt of energy used to power a center, another watt is used to cool down the center. We find ways to cool the data centers that use less energy.”
According to Vertatique Green ICT, which provides insight on being sustainable to information and communications technology (ICT) facilities, over 70 percent of the energy not fueling servers goes to cooling in a typical facility.
Whenever possible, Hurowitz said, Google uses the natural environment to cool data centers. In Finland, cold seawater cools down the servers, while in Ireland, chilly outside air is used. The data center in Iowa, she said, uses water. While using water may expend less energy than traditional AC systems, it also means a heavy demand for water locally, Courard-Hauri said.
A typical data center uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day, but Google tries to compensate by using recycled water to cool its servers. For the water used at its data center in Georgia, a local water treatment facility diverts 30 percent of the water that would have gone back into the river to the data center.
The colder climates at the European data centers reduce the amount of energy needed to cool the warehouses, but a great amount of energy is needed to transport the resources from Google’s California-based operation to the European locations.
Still, it appears Google is the “Al Gore” of technology companies, having spent $1 billion on renewable energy projects since its founding.
“It seems like they’re using some of their financial power to think critically about environmental issues,” Morrow said.
But as Google continues its attempts to go green, the question of whether it has a positive or negative effect on the environment still looms.
Photos courtesy of Google
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