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Bill Weihl

29 June 2007
Bill Weihl

In June 2007 Google, the largest search engine on the web, announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2008. The company also announced that it was joining The °Climate Group. We talk to Bill Weihl, Google's Green Energy Czar about the company's plans to meet its target, engage its users and get behind new low carbon technologies.

What is Google's main impact in terms of GHG emissions?

We aren't disclosing the absolute numbers of our footprint because it's closely coupled to the details of our operations, but the bulk of our emissions are from our data centre operations. Employee commuting and business travel also contribute, as do emissions associated with manufacturing of the servers that we use.

What have you done so far to minimize these emissions?

The biggest thing that we've done is an enormous amount of work on both the servers themselves and also the data centres, so essentially a lot of energy efficiency work. The devices that we use are over 90% efficient, which means we waste less than half as much energy as a typical server. People have talked for years about price performance for computers, servers, laptops etc, but in the last 4 or 5 years, engineers at Google have become increasingly focused on improving performance per watt.

Have the steps you've taken been cost positive?

The short answer is yes. All of the efficiency investments we've made so far have ultimately resulted in a reduction in total expenditures. There are probably some things we could do that might not, but the ones we've tackled already, which are arguably the biggest opportunities, were relatively easy to do in the end and made complete economic sense.

Are you taking what you've learnt and applying the lessons elsewhere?

Yes. A couple of weeks ago we launched the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which aims to set efficiency standards for power supplies and dc-to-dc converters, both for servers and also for desktops. It's about taking what we've done on the server side and getting some of the same efficiency improvements on the desktop side where there's a huge opportunity in terms of total savings.

Higher efficiency will pay for itself even in a desktop and if people are willing to spend a little more upfront they'll make it back and in the process benefit the environment. That's the message we have tried to take to all the major computer manufacturers and purchasers and most of them are now on board. Our belief and expectation is that as we sign up more purchasers, and the volume of high efficiency systems goes up, and the price premium which is quite modest today, will come down to zero.

What about your plans to go carbon neutral - where will you focus your efforts?

There are two main areas where we will reduce our own emissions. Firstly, continued improvements in energy efficiency, some of which will come from the natural technology path that the computer industry is on.

The other major area is renewable energy. We've taken a significant first step with the solar PV installation here at our Mountain View campus which contributes about 30% of our peak load during the day. I would describe it as a significant step, but really only a first step in terms of corporate renewable energy. As part of last week's announcement we committed to building, or causing to be built 50MW of renewable energy for our operations by 2012. Some of that will be onsite, some may be offsite, but the key is that it will be new and additional.

We are also working to reduce employee commuting by offering bus transport and free 'Google-bikes', and to reduce business travel by promoting the use of tele and video-conferencing.

Are you going to engage Google Users?

We recognise that we have enormous reach and have had lots of discussions internally about how best to leverage that. Our business is not content production, it's delivering platforms where people can find information, whether that's on iGoogle, Google Earth or YouTube. What we want is to enable organisations that have useful information around climate change, both the problem and the solutions, to make it available via these platforms.

On i-Google, for example, an organisation like The °Climate Group has the opportunity to provide a pre-defined 'tab', or collection of i-Google gadgets, that anyone could then incorporate onto their own homepage. It could provide users with the latest climate news, a tip of the day, whatever you think would engage people and that they might want to see on a daily basis. That's an enormous opportunity for experts in the field to get their message out there.

One of the things that's key is that people can easily find these gadgets and tabs, so we're looking at how best to organise them to make it easy for people to find what they're interested in and easy for organisations who provide the information to share it.

Google has a reputation for creativity and innovation - can you use that to drive forward change?

One of the things we're trying to do is use our creative, innovative spirit, as well as our very visible brand, to bring attention to some of the technologies which promise to make a big difference in the relatively near term. One good example of that is the plug-in hybrid car project - a very visible experiment around plug-in hybrids, where we are publishing openly the data we get, including mileage and energy use.

We've also engaged with our local utility to do an experiment around the next big idea with plug-ins, the concept of vehicle to grid. So rather than just plugging them in and charging from the grid, the idea is to make that flow of energy bi-directional. Hot summer conditions put more pressure on the grid, and if you have a distributed generation source, or distributed energy storage mechanisms like batteries and plug-in hybrids they can pump energy back into the grid reducing the need for what are often the dirtiest power plants to fire up to satisfy the peak load.

Also, although solar and wind are great sources of electrical power you can't turn them on and off as needed. What plug-in hybrids give you is the opportunity to dispatch the load rather than the generation. You can tell them when to charge and when not to charge. So, for example, if you've got excess wind-power or solar-power on the grid have them charge, otherwise don't. The car project is an example of something that could, over the next decade, transform the transportation infrastructure and, when you couple it with renewable generation, it could make a big difference in our electricity infrastructure as well.

What would you say to other businesses out there thinking about reducing their carbon footprints?

A lot of the things we've done have been a lot of work, but we've learnt a lot, and at the same time much of it has more than paid for itself. The work on energy efficiency and the work on renewables are things that I would say any business could and should do and it's getting easier every year. Also, the computer industry and the data centre industry is beginning to offer products that are significantly more efficient that they were a couple of years ago. I would encourage everybody to make clear to their vendors that energy efficiency for the products they buy is a key criterion.

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