How Google is changing the renewables game

GreenBiz | April 24, 2013 | Original headline: How Google is changing the renewables game for Apple, Facebook

Nightfall over Google data center in Lenoir, N.C. The need to consume ever-increasing amounts of energy in their data centers — yet continue marching towards renewable energy goals — has been an ongoing challenge for Google and Apple.

Google has offset electricity needed for its centers through purchase power agreements that enable an equal amount of renewable energy to be created, yet has lamented that managing power sales and purchases on the wholesale market takes time away from its focus on building user products.

And despite Apple’s onsite generation of renewable energy, it has still had to supplement its need for renewables through buying off the grid and purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset the conventional portion, green IT experts say.

It’s a conundrum that has kept the Silicon Valley tech giants within the constraints of local utilities’ energy mix in states that don’t permit direct purchases of renewable energy.

Nowhere has this challenge been more evident than in North Carolina, an indirect access state that houses data centers for Google, Apple and Facebook as well as AT&T, Wipro and Disney. Compounding matters further is proposed legislation that would repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard mandating that 12.5 percent of North Carolina’s energy mix come from renewable sources by 2021.

But things are looking up. Now, Google is trying to transform the local landscape in North Carolina by partnering with Duke Energy. The pair worked together to develop a mechanism which will enable companies of all sizes to directly purchase renewables through a new category dubbed “renewable energy tariffs.”

“The tariffs are creating a new class of service,” said Michael Terrell, who leads Google’s public policy efforts in energy and sustainability. “We think it will be a good framework for purchasing renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz.

Before the program can be launched, though, the new class and tariff structure needs to be approved by the North Carolina Utiltiies Commission. Duke Energy will make a regulatory filing asking for its adoption within the next three months.

Under the tariff, renewable energy will be sold at specific rates yet to be determined — higher than conventional sources, of course, but passed on only to those who choose to participate in the program.

“What we think is exciting is that it’s scaleable – it allows companies to buy large amounts of renewables … not every company can manage power on the wholesale market,” Terrell said.

Terrell said that he hopes the tariff will be in place by the end of the year.

Google’s announcement of the renewable energy tariff concept last Friday came on the same day it released plans to expand its Lenoir, N.C. data center with $600 million in investments. The possibility of accessing more renewable energy directly will come in handy for the company striving to reach a commitment it made in 2007 to become carbon neutral.

Implications for Apple, Facebook


The renewable energy tariff promises to boost Apple’s tally of renewable energy directly purchased for use at its data center in Maiden, N.C.

Despite Apple’s claim last month that its data centers are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, experts say that based on the information the company has released, it does buy conventional power off the grid in North Carolina (comprised mainly of coal and nuclear power in 2013, according to a Duke Energy report filed to the state’s utilities commission) to supplement what it cannot supply on its own from its 20 MW solar array and 10 MW fuel cell installation at the Maiden data center.

According to Brad Brech, a data center energy efficiency expert and board member of the Portland-based Green Grid, Apple fell short of its claim.

“Assuming that the facility runs the fuel cells at their rated capacity, they will be running their data center at its average operational load in 2012 on 85 percent renewable energy. On a sunny day, the facility will be running on 100 percent renewable energy for eight to 10 hours because the 20 MW solar farm is feeding the grid during that time period, increasing the percentage of the time the data center runs on renewable energy to 91.3 percent of the day,” Brech told GreenBiz. “On a rainy day, it will be 85 percent.”

Brech used Apple’s reported figure of the Maiden data center’s total consumption of 104,000 MWh in 2012 as a basis for his calculations, which he said on average requires 11.8 MW of generation capacity.

“With the current renewable energy generation and energy storage technologies, it is extremely difficult to run a facility that uses large amounts of electricity on renewable energy 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” Brech added. “Most renewable energy generation sources for electricity are intermittent and then are no economical, large scale energy storage technologies available to store electricity for release when the renewable sources are not generating.”

Gary Cook, an IT analyst for Greenpeace, also weighed in. “Apple is otherwise buying renewable energy credits to allow it to claim that all of the electricity it buys is renewable energy,” he told GreenBiz. “It’s not clear how much of Apple’s 100 percent renewable energy claim is being supported by REC purchases. … Technically speaking, if Apple used the current standard for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, Apple would have to use Duke’s grid mix.”

“Given that they expect the Maiden facility to grow and its electricity use increase it will be difficult to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use and assure the reliable operation of the facility,” Brech concluded. “The reality is that all users of renewable energy, whether they are residential or commercial, depend on grid-generated electricity for some part of the day.”

Apple did not make a spokesperson available to respond.


The social media company runs a data center in Forest City, N.C., operates another in Prineville, Ore., is building a third in Lulea, Sweden and recently announced plans for a fourth near Des Moines, Iowa. While it has not been as aggressive as Google or Apple in the renewables market so far, it has a goal to reach 25 percent use of renewable energy at its data centers and facilities by 2015. And it’s planning to tap into renewable energy sources for its data centers in Sweden and Iowa, according to Reuters.

If Duke Energy’s regulatory filing to the North Carolina Utilities Commission to establish renewable energy tariffs is approved, Facebook will also have the opportunity to increase its use of renewables in Forest City.

Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks told GreenBiz that he didn’t know whether Facebook or Apple has expressed interest in participating in the renewable energy tariff program.

GigaOM‘s Katie Fehrenbacher reported last summer that Facebook’s head of energy efficiency and sustainability Bill Weihl expressed interest in purchasing renewable energy through an industry trade association which would “influence utilities’ grid choices through the group purchasing of clean power,” the article read.

How the renewable tariff program would work

Google and Duke Energy still have yet to hammer out much of the details of the renewable tariff program, which is a separate initiative from the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The program will initially focus on large commercial and industrial companies as customers, according to Google.

“They have fairly predictable energy loads and it’s consistent, which makes it easy to design a rate that will meet their needs,” said Brooks, who added that Duke Energy had been discussing the tariff program with Google in detail for the last several months. General discussion about the idea began when Google first asked Duke Energy for a renewables rate during initial discussions about expanding its Lenoir data center, according to Brooks.

To start, the customer will decide if they want to offset some or all of its energy consumption, then the utility will match the customer with a project in the region that has a third party purchase agreement, Brooks said.

In addition to the utility going out and identifying renewable project sources, projects can approach the utility and come in under the tariff, he continued.

While Brooks could not project the level of demand in North Carolina for directly purchased renewables, he said he sees a potential for long-term growth of renewable energy sources.

“We’ve seen renewable energy projects bloom in the state over the last few years, and we’ve seen a great interest in solar energy companies, wind and even biomass and other forms of methane gas projects too. Solar in particular has really boomed in the past few years, and we’ve seen costs come down for those technologies,” Brooks said.

Terrell said that Google has been speaking to other utilities about the renewable energy tariff proposal. According to Brooks, the idea to offer renewable energy rates to various customer classes is fairly new but not entirely unique. Dominion Virginia Power, he said, provides a similar offering.

“It’s [an idea] that utilities are exploring in different ways,” he said.

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Half Moon Bay Fish Go Hi-Tech

story and photos by Kristine A. Wong (Note: This story originally appeared on Half Moon Bay Patch on June 10, 2011).

With the debut of a new Community Supported Fishery (CSF) in Half Moon Bay, a group of Pillar Point fishermen are collaborating with local community members, businesses and Internet giant Google as a way to support sustainability of fish stocks, the ocean, and local livelihoods.

They’re also providing employees of the Silicon Valley company with access to fish much fresher than what’s in their local supermarket, according to Google chef and Half Moon Bay resident Olivia Wu. The CSF is the first of its kind in Northern California, and one of a small handful in the state.

For those who can’t drop by Pillar Point Harbor to buy fish off the boat on their way home from work, a little more than 48 hours from ocean to table doesn’t seem to be too bad—a plausible scenario for Google employees who picked up a 1-pound fillet of chinook salmon on a recent Friday caught two days before by Half Moon Bay fisherman Jim Anderson.

How did this all begin?

From her five years of writing about sustainable seafood for the San Francisco Chronicle — as well as her self-described passion for fresh seafood and support of sustainable fisheries — Wu got to know the Half Moon Bay fishing community well from regular forays down to Pillar Point Harbor.

Though her role changed a few years ago after taking a position at Google as one of six executive chefs, seafood was still on her mind.

“It was really obvious to me that there should be a partnership between local [seafood] producers and Googlers,” she said, referring to employees of the famed company which has 10,000 employees working at its Mountain View campus. “Googlers care a lot about the quality of our food and its impact on the environment,” she said.

Wu found a natural collaborator in fellow Google Executive Chef Quentin Topping, who grew up on the East Coast and had been on a personal quest to find fresh seafood at markets since his move West. Like Wu, Topping was aware of the precarious positions of the oceans with their declining fish stocks, and the tough times small fishermen had weathered in recent years.

“Seafood these days is moving in the direction of long hauls, which are destroying habitats,” he said. “When you have a great seafood resource you have to protect it and treat it in a responsible manner from the boat to the end product.”

Both Wu and Topping knew fishermen at Pillar Point Harbor who fished using sustainable methods in day boats, described by Topping as using “artisan” ways.

“We both realized that we could bring this amazing product to Googlers,” Topping said.

The idea also fit with Google’s policy of supplying their 27 workplace cafes with fish caught within 200 miles of its Mountain View campus.

So a few years ago, Wu brought Pillar Point fishermen and Half Moon Bay resident and San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Pietro Parravano to Google. Then, she approached Parravano with the idea of bringing freshly-caught Half Moon Bay seafood to employees.

“It was a slow process, it took two years,” Parravano said. He already had a hand in starting the Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF in Gloucester, Mass., which is part of a larger network of CSFs on the East Coast.

The hangup? Parravano said it was “consistency”: finding a time that worked each week for all the fishermen to have their catches ready.

But at the end of March something clicked, and Jim Anderson, who fishes solo on the Allaine boat, got the call for help. He previously co-championed the first off-the-boat crab and fish sales at Pillar Point Harbor, held positions on the California Salmon Council and the state Dungeness Crab Task Force, and is involved in a salmon DNA identification project along the West Coast.

“Forty-eight hours later, we had our first meeting,” Anderson said. The exploratory gathering included a select group of peers like Duncan MacLean, head of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, and Ben Parsons, an El Granada resident who fishes on the Mr. Morgan Boat docked at Pillar Point with Captain Steve Fitz.

The meeting indicated an interest in a Half Moon Bay CSF, so Anderson and Parsons’ wife Shannon acted quickly to form a Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Association. The association was a necessary configuration if the fishermen were to get paid and engage in other business transactions as a CSF.

What motivated Parsons’ involvement? “I want to be able to support the fishermen and help them do what they love to do, what they’re good at, which is fishing,” she said.

Seven fishermen are currently on board to fish for the CSF. Parsons says participating boats represent those who provide quality fish using sustainable methods. The Mr. Morgan boat, for example, fishes for flatfish using Scottish seines, a type of equipment that lacks steel trawl doors or cables associated with degradation of ocean floor habitat.

The CSF was modeled after Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs where farmers are supported by locals who purchase shares of the farm’s production in advance of a season. The up-front investment supports small operators who might not have the capital to continue operating otherwise.

“They don’t have to worry about selling the fish when they get back,” Parsons said, adding that with the CSF, the fishermen know how much fish they have to catch before they head to sea — which not only saves time, but also gas, money, and wasted fish the boats cannot sell upon their return.

And since what’s delivered each week to members are what the fishermen are able to catch, it’s discourages overfishing and focuses on seasonal fish instead, according to Anderson.

“It also allows people to eat food that is incredibly fresh and local, not a product that’s been trucked up and down the coast just to get here,” he said.

With the basic structure in place, the group had a flurry of meetings over just eight weeks to prepare for the May 27 debut. Other key players involved CSA software specialist Farmigo and Eriko Fujino, owner of Princeton fish processor Blue Ocean Smoke House.

Fujino receives deliveries from the fishermen, cuts and package the fish for CSA shareholders (in biodegradable trays and plastic bags purchased especially for the CSF by Wu), and sends it south with fish wholesaler Monterey Fish to Google for a Friday morning delivery.

Using Farmigo’s software, which is built on a Google platform and designed for ventures like CSAs, Google employees can sign up for up to receive fish every week or every other week for three months. They can even put their account on a vacation hold. Parson and Anderson plan to open an online store in July, where subscribers can purchase additional fish or order other items such as squid or smoked salmon.

One $26 share will get an subscriber one pound of a more expensive fish (like chinook salmon), to two pounds of a less expensive one such as petrale sole. The catch being distributed today for week three is chilipepper, a type of Rockcod.

Subscribers make a short trek to a warehouse on the Google campus each Friday to pick up their weekly allotment packaged in the biodegradable materials, which they can pack home in a reusable bright green fabric container insulated by a gel pack to prevent spoilage.

And just like at the farmer’s market, when buyers can meet the people who produce the food on their table, Parsons sends each subscriber a virtual introduction to the fisherman that caught each week’s offering along with a link to an online recipe.

The CSF has been growing steadily, doubling subscribers from week one to two with more than 100 subscribers to date, Parsons said. She and Anderson have been getting requests to start additional CSFs.

“We’ll be focusing on this pilot program at Google until the first-season subscription ends in mid-August,” Parsons said. A CSF for Half Moon Bay and Coastside residents is in the works for August, and a pickup location already has been secured.

They’ll also look to expand with a CSF for Google employees working out of the company’s San Francisco office, as she said they’ve received a good amount of interest from workers there.

Half Moon Bay fishermen with the CSF don’t get paid as much as they would if they sold their catch off their boat in Pillar Point Harbor, Anderson said. But there’s still a big advantage to taking part.

“This provides a fresher product to the people, and builds a direct relationship between the fishermen and the consumer,” he said.