Climate 21

Reducing Google’s Carbon Footprint - Michael Terrell, Director of Energy at Google

April 14, 2021 Tom Raftery / Michael Terrell Season 1 Episode 20
Climate 21
Reducing Google’s Carbon Footprint - Michael Terrell, Director of Energy at Google
Show Notes Transcript

Last week's episode of the podcast with Sandra Pallier and Hannah Smith from ClimateAction.tech looked at the issue of reducing IT's carbon footprint taking a bottom up approach so, I wanted to have a follow-up episode looking at reducing IT's emissions issue with a more top-down perspective.

With that in mind I invited Michael Terrell, Director of Energy at Google to come on the podcast to talk about some of Google's initiatives in this space. Google have long been leaders in reducing the carbon intensity of their electricity and compute, so I was really looking forward to this chat, and Michael didn't disappoint.

We had a fascinating conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you enjoy it too.

If you have any comments/suggestions or questions for the podcast - feel free to leave me a voice message over on my SpeakPipe page, head on over to the Climate 21 Podcast Forum, or just send it to me as a direct message on Twitter/LinkedIn. Audio messages will get played (unless you specifically ask me not to).

And if you want to know more about any of SAP's Sustainability solutions, head on over to www.sap.com/sustainability and if you liked this show, please don't forget to rate and/or review it. It makes a big difference to help new people discover the show. Thanks.

And remember, stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane!

Music credit - Intro and Outro music for this podcast was composed, played and produced by my daughter Luna Juniper

Michael Terrell:

The urgency is greater than it's ever been. But the opportunity is greater than it's ever been. And so I really hope that, you know, I look back at how far we've come over the past 10 years. And I hope we go well, well beyond that over the next 10. I think this is going to be one of the most exciting decades for climate action and corporate sustainability that we've ever seen. And I'm very much looking forward to being a part of it and hoping that we can play our small part in leading the way.

Tom Raftery:

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, wherever you are in the world. This is the climate 21 podcast, the number one podcast showcasing best practices and climate emissions reductions. And I'm your host, global Vice President for SAP. Tom Raftery. Climate 21 is the name of an initiative by SAP to what our customers calculate, report and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In this climate 21 podcast, I will showcase best practices and thought leadership by SAP, by our customers, by our partners, and by our competitors if they're game in climate emissions reductions. Don't forget to subscribe to this podcast in your podcast app of choice to be sure you don't miss any episodes. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the climate 21 podcast. My name is Tom Raftery, from SAP and with me on the show today I have my special guest, Michael. Michael, would you like to introduce yourself?

Michael Terrell:

Hi, Tom. Michael Terrell, and I'm director of energy at Google,

Tom Raftery:

Director of energy at Google. See, this is great, because most people when they think of Google, they think of that little search box on that white page. And, you know, take me there or whatever. You know, we don't think about the energy. And, you know, I last week, I published a podcast with a group called climate action tech, which was great because it brought this subject to Pete to the forefront of people's minds, right? I hope it did. It raised the topic at least in their in their consciousness and awareness. Why is director of energy at Google an important role?

Michael Terrell:

It's a great question. And all of those searches, and YouTube videos and maps directions are all served by data centers around the world. And those data centers are served by electricity. So power consumption is a very key part of how we do business and how we serve our products to users around the world.

Tom Raftery:

superbe know, when you see data centers, you know, they're usually kind of gray, faceless buildings, you never see, you know, smokestacks beside them or anything like that. They are to your point, they're using electricity. And more increasingly, that electricity is required by the data center operators to be renewable. And I think you guys in Google, were one of the pioneers in this. Can you talk to me a little bit about the journey that you got to where you are today and with command to where you are today? First, but give me a little bit of a little bit about the background into the whole renewable space and Google and Google's, you know, requirements for data centers and that kind of thing?

Michael Terrell:

Absolutely. Well, our electricity consumption, as I mentioned, is, you know, core to how we serve our products. In fact, it's so core that it's often we can have product areas within Google. If they order up new compute capacity, they can do it in megawatts, which is a, which is a unit of measure of measurement in the electricity industry. And so we recognized early on, when we started building our own data centers, which you know, these are, like you mentioned, there, they're very large facilities, I call them the manufacturing centers of the internet. And, you know, they're very large facilities, and they use quite a bit of electricity. And we recognized early on that, you know, the electricity footprint of our data centers, was really the made up the vast majority of Google's overall carbon footprint. And so we were starting to look at ways that we could address the environmental footprint of that electricity consumption. And so you know, we we started on this, you know, way back in, and, you know, 2007, where we became one of the first companies to be carbon neutral. And, you know, we basically pledged to purchase carbon offsets to offset our carbon footprint associate with that electricity consumption at the time, that was really, you know, one of the only tools available to us as a company, you know, wind and solar had not scaled to the extent they have now. In fact, we had a 1.7 gigawatt, I'm sorry, 1.7 megawatt solar installation at our corporate headquarters in California. And at the time, it was the largest corporate solar installation in the world. And we've now signed contracts for over 5000 megawatts just to give you some sense of scale. And so, you know, we started looking for ways that we could, you know, green, that electricity that our data centers were using around the world. And, you know, we pledged to be carbon neutral, we started buying carbon offsets. We did some rooftop solar installations, but it really wasn't enough to cover these large electricity loads. And so we went directly to wind and solar developers and said, Hey, can we just buy directly from your wind farm or from your solar farm, and use that as a way to help source our electricity for our data centers? Turns out, it's not exactly easy to do that. And we had to get, you know, special regulatory authority in the United States from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But we were able to do that. And we did our first power purchase deal for 100, over 100 megawatts of wind power in Iowa in 2010. And, and then we've been engaged in a series of initiatives ever since which I'm happy to talk about more. But, you know, it's it's really sort of involved, you know, going out to the market and trying to solve for some of these problems on our own, but also looking to work with wind and solar developers or even utilities. But we've really stayed laser focused on trying to find ways to find carbon free energy supplies for our data centers. And it's been, it's been quite a journey. But I think we're making, you know, amazing progress. And I think we've seen really incredible things happening in the markets, you know, over the past 10 years or so.

Tom Raftery:

And, crucially, the wind and solar you correct me if I'm wrong here, but as I recall, because I remember reading about those stories at the time, but crucially, one of the things that you mandated when you were purchasing those renewable power agreements, was that it would be additive power, it wouldn't be that you'd be taking it from people, you know, you wouldn't be taking from existing suppliers, but it had to be built specially for you.

Michael Terrell:

That's correct. Yeah, in the industry, we call that additionality, which is to ensure that, you know, our efforts are resulting in new clean power resources being put on the grid, we're not just going to an existing hydroelectric project that's been there for 80 years. And and off taking the power and claiming you know, that we're we're greening the grid. So so that that concept of additionality is very important to us, and something that we really incorporated early on in these efforts to find projects. And so you know, just to carry that forward a little bit, we did our first deal in 2010. And in 2012, we actually set a goal to match 100% of our electricity consumption with these renewable energy purchases. And, and we, at the time, when we set that goal, I remember thinking of Gosh, it's gonna be the 2020s, late 2020s, if we're lucky to be able to pull this off. And we we actually accomplished in 2017. And we've done now, over 50 deals and purchase over five gigawatts of renewables around the world and all of it, you know, you know, subscribing to our very strict standards of additionality, as you as you mentioned.

Tom Raftery:

Fantastic. Fantastic. And, you know, what else have you guys been up to? Because it you know, they renewables stuff is phenomenal. Don't get me wrong, you're amazing. And I love the additionality side of it as well. But there's obviously more that that you're doing as director of energy in Google.

Michael Terrell:

Yeah, I think, you know, we're, we're, I call this our decarbonisation journey, you know, which started in 2007. And with carbon offsets, and then you know, McChord and the second decade of the of the century with renewable energy purchases, and then, more recently, we've really started to zero in on, how can we be carbon free every hour of every day, at every facility around the world, we call this 24, seven carbon free energy. And we actually made a pledge last fall to achieve carbon free energy for our operations for our data centers in our large office campuses by 2030. I think we're the first company that's made such a commitment. And you know, the and and it's a very ambitious commitment, and I can't and we don't even have a an idea of exactly how we're going to get there. But we've seen some incredibly promising trends that we think will enable us to get there even with the growth that we're still experiencing as a company. So, you know, back to your question of, you know, what are we up to? Well, when you when you start thinking about your electricity supply from on an hourly basis, and you're thinking about every location, you know, you have to do more than just go signed a wind and or a solar contract, you have to think really holistically about how you're interfacing with the grid, how you're filling in every hour of every day, how you're flexing your demand your own electricity consumption to match up with variable resources on the grid. And so we're, it's really forced us to take a much more holistic view of the electricity system as a whole and how Google intersects with that system. And so we're now mixing and matching wind and solar. We're now using battery storage. For example, we've just now started deploying batteries at one of our data centers to serve as our backup backup for our compute. And we're actually using that battery to we're working with the grid operator to help balance the electricity grid that we're that we're running on. And so this this sort of 24, seven gold makes us really forces us to think more holistically about all of the sort of not only supply issues, but also demand and how we manage demand across our fleet. And and I think it's, you know, it's really making us much smarter about how we run our business and how we run our operations, which is a nice added benefit.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, and I mean, you said, you're not sure exactly how you're going to get there by by 2030. So there's obviously a lot of challenges. Can you speak to some of the those challenges and, you know, some possible ways to overcome them?

Michael Terrell:

Yeah, I mean, first of all, let's talk about the good. We've seen these incredible historic cost declines in wind and solar, and now battery storage over the past 10 to 15 years. And there's parts of the of our fleet now and regions of the world that I never dreamed we could go and sign a large scale solar deal and have it actually be the cheapest option. It's incredible. And, and so it's because it's a very exciting time, for those of us who care about trying to solve for the climate care about sustainability, like we have more tools in our toolkit now than we've ever had, you know, ever had before. So I think that's great. We also have, you know, digital technologies and information technology that helps us manage things in more real time gives us more of a real time picture of our fleet and how it's working, and how it interacts with the grid. So those are all great things. On the on the challenge side, you know, the wind doesn't blow all the time, and the sun doesn't shine doesn't shine all the time. And, and so there still are gaps in the generation of carbon free power that we need to fill, you know, hours of the day and certain locations that we've got to find a way to fill. And, and I think, you know, you can get pretty high penetration of clean energy with wind and solar, but you can't it's it's difficult to get all the way there cost effectively, or in some regions, it's just difficult to get all the way there as a whole. And so we really have to think about different technologies, you know, whether it's a technologies like long duration storage, or green hydrogen, or geothermal or hydro, to help, you know, fill in those hours, we have to get smarter about how we're managing our demand, we have to think about the grids that we're operating on as a whole, like, do we want to make those regional grids even bigger to manage the variability across large distances? So so there's still quite a few technology challenges? I think policy is also another area that's really important, you know, to the extent that countries are setting really ambitious targets to green, their electricity grids, if you're green, the electricity grid, it benefits everybody, not just Google. And it certainly makes our job easier. And I think we're very supportive of those efforts. So I think these these challenge on challenges with technologies and finding additional ways to think about generation, some of the challenges on the policy side, how we regionalised electricity markets, and have really clear policy goals on where we want to take electricity grids, I think those are some of the things that we're going to need to see fall into place. But we think are certainly possible, otherwise, we wouldn't have set such an ambitious goal.

Tom Raftery:

And you I mean, you mentioned policies and regional policies, that's got to be really challenging to deal with because some regions, you know, I'm based in the EU, you're based in the US very different energy policies, and those two regions, and then you think of places like Australia, very different regional policy, yet again, in a very different grid, yet again, what's it like dealing with all those different regions with all those different policies?

Michael Terrell:

I love it, it's one of the more challenging parts of the aspects of the job, you know, well, the first thing I should say is, we're dealing with wires and electrons in all regions. And so the the, the fundamental sort of technology, and the fundamental sort of system basis is, you know, is the same across regions, although there are very big variations, as you mentioned, how we actually regulate the system and govern the system varies widely, you know, whether you're in Asia or Europe or the US or Australia, other places like that. And, and so, it is a challenge to sort of look at how can we advance policy in a way that, you know, moves the needle on clean energy. The good news is, is that in all of these places, governments care very much about you know, improving the carbon, their electricity supply and moving more towards clean energy. That's something kind of like wires and electrons. That's now universal. It wasn't always the case. But I think it's a very, you know, exciting development that governments are, etc.

Tom Raftery:

in Australia.

Michael Terrell:

That's true. We, we face, we face occasional occasional steps backward, you know, and even in the US, you know, the past, you know, before your the previous four years, we haven't seen quite as strong an appetite as we had, you know, depending on the administration, but, but generally, you're seeing, you know, movement from governments to want to try and work on ways to diversify and, and clean up the power supply. And then I think like, you know, another principle we we really abide by is working with regional partners and working with other companies that are in these regions, and working with local stakeholders. And so, you know, you can't have a blanket approach that applies to every jurisdiction across the world and Europe, we've formed a coalition with other European companies to, you know, advance clean energy purchasing for for corporates, in Europe, we've done the same thing in the US, we're now working to do something similar in Asia right now. So so I think you, you know, you can take some of the common principles related to the system. But in terms of like changing specific policies, you really want to be working locally and working with local companies and organizations to do that.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, a couple of the the guests I've had on the podcast in the, in the last couple of weeks and months have talked about the science based targets initiative, you know, as as a way of defining the targets for the organization. Is that something that Googler are involved with, as well? Or are you doing this on your own? Or how does that work?

Michael Terrell:

Yeah, we're part of all of those discussions, you know, around carbon accounting, whether it's with groups like the World Resources Institute, or the carbon Disclosure Project, we're certainly engaged in a dialogue with science based targets initiative. And I think one, you know, really interesting learning that we've had at Google is that these sorts of targets and standard setting and protocols have an enormous role to play and have a huge role in shaping the direction of the markets, then let me give you an example. We were one of the first companies to set a 100% renewable energy target. And we've now seen over 200, companies who have set similar targets, that's a great thing. But on the flip side, what because it's a very specific target, you know, on an annual basis, go out and buy enough renewable energy to match all of your electricity consumption, it basically means that companies are going out and chasing the cheapest renewable energy wherever they can find it. And they might actually be building and, and, and incentivizing new renewable energy in places where it's not necessarily needed a place like California has a glut of, of solar energy in the middle of the day, it doesn't really do much good to put another solar plant on the online in the middle, you know, for in California, or we have other parts of our portfolio where the Clean Energy penetrations can actually be quite high like the West Texas or Midwest like Oklahoma, I can get oversaturation of wind, where the prices actually go negative. And so you know, the the standards that are set and the targets and the goals that are that are set for companies have a very, very big role to play in driving the market. And they drive mill hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. And so I think one of the things we've done at Google, and I think this is what one of the reasons that led us to this 24, seven carbon free energy commitment was making sure that our ultimate goal was aligned with where we wanted the whole system to go. And you know, like, at the end of the day, if you really want companies to use carbon free electricity, just make the electricity grids carbon free, everywhere, you know, and then you and then 1000s, and millions of companies can be carbon free, and so and so like, we want to make sure that the goals we're setting for ourselves at Google, are aligned with where we want the markets to go and where we want the technology to go. And I think, you know, certainly applaud target setting and net zero commitments and those sorts of things. But at the same time, I would caution that, you know, let's make sure that if we're setting, let's, for example, net zero targets or similar kinds of science based targets that we're leaving, that we're not just creating another carbon offset market, that we're actually we're actually encouraging behavior that fundamentally solves the problem. And you know, we're at the end of the day, all companies intersect the economy in really interesting and unique ways. And you want to encourage companies to use their unique position within the economy to drive systematic change, you know, to solve for climate change. I mean, I tend to say like a Google, it would it's great to solve for Google, but like we want to be solving for 1000 Google's 100,000 Google's and Helping people around the world, you know, become carbon free. And if we fail at that, then I think we failed. And I think some of these efforts are maybe a very, very focused on the four walls of the company or the company's own carbon footprint. And again, that's important, and you want companies addressing that. But you also want to leave room for big bold ideas and transformative ideas. And at the end of the day, there's an unbelievable sense of urgency, we feel here to transform the way we work and as a company in the way that our tools help people live and work. And we want to make sure that we're leaving room for that as we set these standards and goals. And that we're just, you know, we're really focused on the fundamental problem, which is, you know, solving for the economy and creating the clean economy.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, super. So for people listening to this, let's say, I am listening to this, and I am the CEO of company x, based on continent y. And I want to reduce my carbon footprint significantly in the next five to 10 years by 2030. What are my best first steps? Well, you'll

Michael Terrell:

love my answer here, which is that it depends.

Tom Raftery:

It course, lately,

Michael Terrell:

yeah, it completely depends on, you know, the type of company and the type of operations that you have. And, you know, I tell folks to, you know, look at what you do, well look at where you intersect, you know, the economy and the broader system. So for Google, you know, we were a large electricity purchaser, and we were having discussions with utilities and policymakers around the world about that. And so we wanted to leverage that to help drive, you know, more clean energy for our company. So, you know, I think I tell companies to look at what you do and how you intersect, you know, the economy, and are there things you can do to, to, you know, help sort of leverage that in a way that can drive sustainability and progress. If you're just getting started, I would look for other organizations that are out there, there's a number of different groups, whether they're environmental organizations or corporate groups that have come together to share knowledge and best practices on how to address sustainability. And I think on on electricity consumption, you know, there are like I said, there's a, we have a corporate group now in the US called the renewable energy buyers Alliance, which I chair the board of, we have a similar group in Europe called the resource platform, and we're in the process of setting one up in Asia. And I would encourage companies to who are interested in green electricity supply supply to become members of those groups. And there's a lot of resources that are available. So So again, it depends on the nature of the company and the nature of the operations. If you're a Coca Cola, you use water and, and packaging materials, and you want to focus in those areas, perhaps. And if you're a large electricity user, you want to focus on your electricity, it really just depends. And then if if you are focused on electricity, like I said, you know, reach out to some of these groups and, and they're, they're a great resource.

Tom Raftery:

And those groups apart, apart from coming together to send a larger demand signal. I guess they're also involved in lobbying regulations as well.

Michael Terrell:

Yeah. You know, they're, they're moving the policy needle, you know, whether it's in Brussels or Washington, DC, they're doing trainings and boot camps for companies who want to try and do their own renewable energy deal. So they're, they're a great resource.

Tom Raftery:

Okay. So, where to from here for Google? I mean, you mentioned the 24 by seven renewable electricity. What other big picture ideas? Are you thinking of? Or what other big initiatives have you coming down the line,

Michael Terrell:

I think we've really gotten a handle on our electricity footprint and how to tackle that, we're now starting to look at our supply chains. So computer servers, hardware supply chains, looking at how can we green the manufacturing footprints of our key men in our key manufacturing regions. And I think another area that's going to be super exciting for us as using our products, to help our users find new ways to to, you know, attack climate in their own, live their own lives and their own work. And so for example, we've just released something recently where we're going to have new mapping options that show you the the cleanest route on the map. You know, from a carbon perspective, as you're sort of plotting your, your directions on Google Maps, I think finding ways to utilize our tools is is really a an area that we haven't fully that hasn't been fully built out. And that's got a lot of opportunity and something that we're all certainly very excited about.

Tom Raftery:

So you're controlling the electricity going into your data centers and your servers, and it's renewable and that's great and Here I am in south of Spain, my house is fully renewably powered as well, and they call up a Google page. So my electricity use is carbon free, your electricity use is carbon free. But all of the routers and switches in between your data center and my browser page, neither of us can control. How do we impact the carbon footprint of those?

Michael Terrell:

Great question. And it underscores the need to, like I mentioned before, to think holistically about how we solve these problems. And, you know, certainly, it underscores the need for having clean power grids and so that everything running on the power grid can be carbon free. But they're, you know, there's a good body of research out there that's looked at the the sort of entire chain from, you know, from the data center to the user. And you know, the majority of the power consumption is really associated with the data centers. And the devices there's, there is a bit associated with the networking, but it tends to be a smaller portion, I think the the some of the studies show on the order of about 10% or less. So it's certainly not an unimportant area, but not the big area, the big area of focus is really that where the computers being delivered. And that's where it's coming from these sort of super efficient data centers that are now more and more running on carbon free energy. But it's a great question. It's certainly an area that we need to look at, as we're thinking holistically about the whole delivery of information to people's fingertips.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, super. We are coming towards the end of the podcast. Now, Michael, is there anything that I have not asked you that you wish I had? Or is there any topic we've not addressed that you think it's important for people to be aware of?

Michael Terrell:

I think I would say that, you know, the, we've made an incredible amount of progress in the past 10 years around climate friendly technologies, the level of interest in engagement and the level of effort that's going into solving these problems. And from the corporate sector, I would say that the next 10 years are not going to be anything like the last 10 years, I think the next 10 years are going to be the last 10 years on steroids. And, and that, you know, the urgency of climate change has never been more clear. And the tools and the technologies have never been so widely available, and that we really need to turbocharge our efforts, because the urgency is greater than it's ever been. But the opportunity is greater than it's ever been. And so I really hope that, you know, I look back at how far we've come over the past 10 years. And I hope we go well. well beyond that over the next 10. I think this is going to be one of the most exciting decades for climate action and corporate sustainability that we've ever seen. And I'm very much looking forward to being a part of it and hoping that we can play our small part in and leading the way.

Tom Raftery:

Michael, that's been great. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast today. If people want to know more about yourself, or about Google and Google's efforts in this space, or anything else we talked about on the podcast today, where would you have me direct them?

Michael Terrell:

Yes. So I would go to our website, where we have lots of information around all of the things I talked about. We have reports and white paper, white papers. And if you just go to Google and Google Google sustainability, or Google carbon free energy, they'll

Tom Raftery:

take you right there. Fantastic bike. And that's been excellent. Thanks a million for coming on the podcast today.

Michael Terrell:

Thanks for having me.

Tom Raftery:

Okay, we've come to the end of the show. Thanks, everyone for listening. If you'd like to know more about climate 21, feel free to drop me an email to Tom raftery@sap.com or connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you'd like to show please don't forget to subscribe to it in your podcast application of choice to get new episodes as soon as they're published. Also, please don't forget to rate and review the podcast. It really does help new people to find the show. Thanks. Catch you all next time.