Google's chief sustainability officer strives for greater efficiencies in a high-powered world

A Google data centre.
Alastair Wiper

Google’s total energy consumption in 2018 was 10 terawatt-hours, about 1.5 per cent of Canada’s annual electricity generation of 2017. But under Google’s chief sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, the company is also becoming the world’s largest purchaser of renewable energy.

“Having worked in this space for a long time, I saw a tremendous shift in public awareness in 2019, following the news . . . out of the UN which said that we only have 12 years left before we’ve irreversibly messed up the planet,” Brandt tells Yahoo Finance Canada. “I think that really broke through for people more than other climate science before.”

The lion’s share of Google’s energy consumption comes from its data centres, which it began building in 2007, and currently there are 16 of them operating across the globe.

In Vancouver to speak at Globe 2020, Brandt shared news around Google’s sustainable efforts, including the impact a carbon neutral workplace has had on the tech giant. The company also does “20 per cent projects” where any employee can take 20 per cent of their time to work on a side project, and “hundreds of people have done projects with us on sustainability,” which sometimes turn into real applications offered by Google, Brandt says. To Brandt, small, actionable measures will continue to move the dial to fight climate change.

“We have 16 data centres around the world, each with smart controls which take measurements and power temperatures, and we’ve recently taken in machine learning (ML) capabilities and created an AI-powered efficiency recommendation system,” explains Brandt. “We’ve put it on autopilot so it’s driving even deeper efficiency in the cooling systems in our data centres, which is where a lot of the energy goes. And we’ve seen a 30 per cent increase of efficiency in our cooling systems, just thanks to AI.”

Brandt says that energy efficiency is a good place to start, but it’s also important to match the electricity use of data centres with renewable energy. For Google, this matching practice has been a commitment since 2012, she says.

“In 2017, and again in 2018, we met that goal about matching 100 per cent of energy, and that makes us the largest corporate purchaser for renewable energy in the world,” adds Brandt. “We have over 50 wind and solar projects that we are buying power from.”

Appointed by the Obama administration in 2014 as the nation’s first federal chief sustainable officer, Brandt says the main policy she worked on, the 10-year federal sustainability strategy, has been replicated for Google. Back in 2010, Brandt was working at the U.S. Navy, which, like Google, had its first power-purchase agreement completed that year.

Brandt says data centres are a big cost input, and that “we estimate we’ve been able to avoid over a billion dollars of cost because of all the energy efficiency measures we’ve taken.” More importantly, these solutions are accessible to Canadians, including the Environmental Insights Explorer, a city-climate action planning tool available in 100 cities around the world, 39 of those cities in Canada.

“This tool shows cities the carbon footprint of their building, transportation, and it shows how they can deploy solar, indicating the solar potential of their rooftops, for example. Now we are increasingly seeing cities setting climate action targets off the back of that data,” explains Brandt.

Brandt also shared that “Google overhauled its old industrial system and got an additional 40 per cent increase in efficiency through AI.” And that as part of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, Google along with “hundreds of companies has committed to 60 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy.”

Just last week Google launched Earth 911 in Canada, which provides highly localized recycling information with simple prompts like “Hey Google, is this recyclable?” to help people know what to do with everyday materials. Right now this tool is available only through the Google assistant integration via phone or Google Nest, however, Brandt says they are looking to bring it out more broadly.

Data centres are also producing data around flood forecasts. Teaming up with the Government of India (which Brandt explains is where 20 per cent of flooding deaths occur every year), Google deployed machine learning (ML) for more accurate forecasting, sending over a million alerts to citizens telling them how to access information through Google maps, search, etc.

As for inside Google, Brandt explains that in addition to efficiency efforts within the data centres, food waste is a concern. By using Leanpath, which is a scale and camera system, the company has saved over 6.6 million pounds of food waste.

Also, by 2022, Google plans to have recycled plastic in all system devices, with Nest devices already made of recycled plastics, according to Brandt.

Canadians are keen to enact their own proactive measures, with recent Ipsos findings indicating that 68 per cent of Canadians have made active changes to how much energy they use in their homes, up 13 points from the previous survey. Canada ranks 15th overall on change, ahead of the United States, which ranks 25th out of 28 countries, according to the survey.

Momentum continues around rechargeable technologies too. The 2019 Nobel Prize in chemistry rewarded the lithium-ion battery, which is used in portable electronics and helps store energy from solar and wind power. While breakthroughs in energy-storage technologies won’t solve climate change, they can be used to preserve energy.