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Google and the 100% misleading headlines

By 8th December 2016 Blog, Sustainability No Comments

In the last couple of days, it has been widely reported that the tech giant, Google, will be 100% powered by renewable energy sometime in 2017, achieving this goal earlier than expected. But is it true?

To the casual observer, “powered by 100% renewable energy” might suggest that all of Google’s many offices and data centres are supplied directly by their own solar panel installations or wind farms that meet 100% of each facility’s power needs.

But that’s not what Google has achieved.

Whilst it has invested in on-site power generation from renewables, it can’t satisfy all of its demand this way and so to get to the claimed 100%, the difference is met by purchasing electricity from suppliers that have a lot of renewable generation assets in their portfolio.

It’s a bit like this: imagine a home that has solar panels installed which are able to provide 100% of its daytime electricity needs, but that still needs power at night when the sun is no longer shining. The unmet demand could be satisfied by buying electricity from Good Energy, which promises to only supply 100% renewable power.

In this way, businesses like Google are able to legitimately claim to be 100% renewably powered. The RE100 campaign, of which Google is a member, has provided guidance on making claims about renewable energy use.

Here at Remsol, we happen to think it’s misleading. It’s a bit like those businesses that claim to have achieved ‘zero waste’ when what they really mean is zero waste is sent to landfill, which is altogether different.

That’s not to say Google’s efforts shouldn’t be recognised – nobody forced it to invest in its own renewable power generation or to buy from energy suppliers that continue to invest in large-scale renewables deployment – and so it deserves to bask in its own glory for taking the lead and maybe even inspiring others to follow it, but we need a lot more honesty in the debate about how we continue to power a planet with a population of 7 billion and growing. The idea that every nation in the world can go 100% renewable doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, as we’ve found whilst compiling our latest research paper on the topic (look out for more on that soon).

If we’re serious about reducing climate change emissions linked to energy generation, we need to think more seriously about reducing demand for power first, and then about the role for other sources of lower and low-carbon energy like nuclear. Too much of a fixation on any one form of energy isn’t healthy.

That’s why, when we’re assessing a company’s approach to energy management as part of our Sustainability and CSR Performance Review, we’re not just interested in knowing what percentage of their supply comes from renewables but what the overall carbon intensity is and what steps they’re taking to curb their usage in the first place. We think that’s a whole lot smarter.

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