Dynamo Energy Hub is excited to present an interview with one of our Kilo Sponsors, Google’s own Michelle Chang.
Ms. Michelle Chang (left) serves as the Energy Development Program Manager for 24/7 Carbon-FreeEnergy at Google. Before joining Google, Chang worked in energy finance and earned her Master’s in Public Policy. Ms. Chang wrote in to Dynamo’s Membership Manager,Rachel McDevitt, discussing the innovative sustainability work Google has been doing around 24/7 carbon-free energy, as well as current developments to produce a smarter energy grid.
QUESTION 1: Hi Michelle, thank you for finding time in your busy schedule! Let’s dive right in. Can you tell us about Energy Strategy at Google; who you work with and how you benefit your customers?
Of course — thanks for having me! My team at Google is responsible for setting and executing the energy strategy for our global data center portfolio. We are constantly working with other amazing teams across Alphabet (Google’s parent company), and external entities and partners, as we retool our operations to become increasingly carbon-free. On my team, I personally spend my time helping Google work toward its goal of operating on 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030 by partnering with and scaling new carbon-free energy technologies.
For our customers and users, it all comes down to making sure that the Google searches, Gmails, and YouTube videos that happen every minute around the world have a clean and increasingly carbon-free footprint.
For more than a decade now, we’ve worked to make our data centers some of the most efficient in the world, improving their sustainability even as demand for our products have skyrocketed. Our data centers lead the industry in energy efficiency and are twice as efficient as a typical data center. Compared with five years ago, we now deliver around seven times as much computing power with the same amount of electrical power.
The bottom line is that we are making sure that our customers are getting the cleanest and highest-performing cloud in the world. It has been incredible to be part of a team that is leading the industry and setting such a high bar for corporate sustainability.
QUESTION 2: Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in Energy?
Growing up in Maryland, I became increasingly interested in natural ecosystems and in particular the complex challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay watershed (big shout out to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which does incredible work including in local youth environmental education and conservation).
In college, that environmental interest turned towards climate and energy. I think like many others in my generation, I quickly realized that climate change was going to be the defining challenge of our time. Throughout my professional career, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to work in spaces looking to pull different levers to decarbonize — everything from financial advisory services, private investing, public policy, and now corporate energy strategy at Google.
QUESTION 3: Google became carbon neutral in 2007 and was the first major corporation to match its annual energy use with 100% renewable energy a decade later, as well as maintained it in the past four years, what made Google decide to take this on, and what lessons could you share with other companies transitioning toward 100% renewable energy?
Google has long been a leader in driving innovative solutions to address the environmental impacts of our growing electricity footprint. Google set out to achieve a 100% renewable energy (RE) match to take action to reduce the carbon emissions associated with our electricity consumption, and to push on policy and market changes that enabled more companies to buy clean power. We couldn’t imagine how quickly the RE industry would change and innovate within a decade — including the dramatic price drop of solar and wind energy, which made it much more attractive for us to pursue renewables from a cost perspective. This new reality enabled us to reach our goal years earlier than expected, beginning in 2017 and every year since.
When it came to 100% RE, we were excited by the prospect of sending a clear demand signal for clean power by executing on physical power purchase agreements (PPAs). Over the years, our team has signed over 55 wind and solar agreements to purchase a total of nearly 6 GW of highly additional RE projects. Today, the market has evolved to offer increasingly innovative offtake structures, enabling dozens of corporations to enter the market, which is incredible to see.
The team has learned many lessons on the journey to 100% RE, perhaps most importantly on the importance of staying the course. Reaching decarbonization goals is usually a multi-year process, so a step-by-step approach and consistent commitment from leadership on down are so critical. It’s incredibly exciting to see so many companies purchasing clean energy and setting similar sustainability goals.
QUESTION 4: Google’s newest goal is to decarbonize their electricity supply completely and operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy, everywhere, by 2030. How are you achieving this?
In 2020, we announced our next-level ambition to achieve 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) by 2030. Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, there are inevitably times and places where we still have to rely on carbon-based electricity for our infrastructure. This is why our procurement strategy has evolved from 100% RE to sourcing clean energy for every hour of operations, directly from the grids where our data centers and campuses are located. Doing so is the fastest and most cost-effective way to eliminate carbon emissions directly resulting from our operations.
As you can imagine, this goal is incredibly complex. To achieve round-the-clock carbon-free energy, we’re actively collaborating across industries to accelerate innovation in three areas: electricity purchasing and consumption; carbon-free energy technologies; and policy advancements that drive clean energy access and adoption.
One new innovation we announced last year that’s helping us make progress toward our goal is our carbon-intelligent computing platform, which allows us to shift some of our data center electricity demand to times of day and places where the electricity grid is cleanest.
Reaching this goal will undoubtedly be a learning process for our team, and we are committed to working toward our goal in ways that break down barriers and create opportunities for others to take action on climate and clean energy. Along the way, we intend to share our methodologies, challenges, and data to enable other organizations to fully decarbonize their own operations as well.
We also recently launched the 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact in partnership with Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll). This exciting announcement includes a call-to-action for other entities — including cities and companies — to join a coalition committed to decarbonizing their energy consumption.
This collaborative approach, along with the fact that we’re working towards decarbonizing all the grids we operate on, is what I personally find to be the most exciting — we hope that many others will follow down the same path of pursuing 24/7 CFE.
QUESTION 5: What new energy technologies will you need to deploy in order to meet your goal of carbon-free electricity? How is Google investing in their development?
New carbon-free energy technologies, in our view, will be pivotal to meeting our 24/7 CFE goals, and it’s where I focus my time and efforts on the team.
We see a role for a wide variety of decarbonization technologies, including firm generation technologies like advanced geothermal, nuclear, and CCUS (carbon capture utilization and sequestration), as well as flexible generation and storage technologies, like hydrogen and long-duration energy storage. And in addition to grid-connected power generation technologies, we’re exploring new technologies for on-site generation, as well, which opens up opportunities for clean, flexible backup power.
We know that these emerging climate and energy technologies will play a critical role in helping us get that “last mile” of carbon-free energy, which are often the most challenging and expensive to decarbonize, and reach our 2030 targets. While many of these technologies are still in relatively early technology readiness level (TRL) stages, we’re actively looking to work alongside innovative partners to pilot new technologies and demonstration projects in order to accelerate commercialization and scale over the coming decade. For example, we’ve recently partnered with Fervo on an advanced geothermal pilot project in Nevada, which we’re incredibly excited about.
QUESTION 6: How will your newly announced partnership with AES create “a holistic energy management solution” that will accelerate the widespread adoption of clean energy, especially on a global scale?
Historically, Google has managed our own energy supply and procurement, which included signing many different individual PPAs to secure access to clean energy. We decided to partner with AES to function as an energy manager and help with the complex undertaking of procuring electricity from a portfolio of technologies that can guarantee a high percentage of carbon-free energy on an hourly basis. The partnership is specifically designed to target the most challenging, difficult-to-decarbonize hours on the grid.
The first project of this partnership is at our data centers in Virginia, where AES will be supplying our data centers with round-the-clock clean power through a 500 MW energy portfolio comprised of solar, wind, run of river hydro and battery storage, which will collectively guarantee that, starting in 2024, our electricity consumption at our Virginia data centers is matched by 90% carbon-free energy on an hourly basis. We’re incredibly excited to see where the partnership takes us, and are also looking to replicate this type of transaction model in geographies across the world, such as our recent announcement of our partnership with ENGIE in Germany.
The ENGIE partnership is a first-of-its-kind energy deal in Europe that will bring more than 140 MW of carbon-free energy to the grid and ensure that Google’s German facilities will be nearly 80% carbon-free by 2022 and 100% by 2030. This new investment benefits Google’s European customers by enabling them to operate on the cleanest Cloud in history, while also supporting Germany’s green recovery and climate leadership.
QUESTION 7: Can you talk about how Covid has impacted data, cloud, and energy use and how Google’s “Cleanest Cloud” has addressed the increased demand for cloud usage?
Absolutely — the rate of Google Cloud’s growth has been incredibly exciting, and we think the proposition of offering cloud services with the lowest carbon footprint is compelling for customers. That’s why we’ve recently launched a region picker, which allows customers to compare the carbon intensity of various regions, empowering them with the information and tools to run their loads on the cleanest available cloud region.
Our customers have an opportunity to lead the way in helping the world reduce emissions and operate on carbon-free energy at all times. So beyond just offering cloud services with the lowest carbon footprint, we want to empower Google Cloud customers on their own sustainability journeys. For example, today customers can leverage BigQuery and machine learning tools to help manage their data in real time and decarbonize their operations.
QUESTION 8: Can you speak to smaller players in the industry and how they can coexist with giants like Google? How can smaller companies make their own sustainability goals and is there anything we can do on the consumer level?
This is such a great question — undertaking ambitious goals like 24/7 CFE requires significant time and resources. Part of our sustainability vision is to make 24/7 CFE an accessible goal for all. That’s why we are creating tools that empower electricity buyers — from governments and cities, to corporations spanning all industry verticals –- to set and measure progress toward their own CFE goals.
For example, we are working with partners to pioneer the development of time-based energy attribute certificates (T-EACs) that can track and verify clean electricity production on an hourly basis. This would give any energy consumer access to clean energy produced when and where they consume it, and could create price signals for technologies that produce carbon-free energy when it’s most scarce on grids.
One of the earliest adopters of 24/7 CFE was Iron Mountain, a data center company and Google Cloud customer. Other cloud providers and companies, like Microsoft, have come out with commitments that align with the ambitions and goals of 24/7 CFE. A particularly exciting milestone was recently announced — the Biden Administration committed to a 24/7 clean power goal for the Federal government by 2035, the largest electricity purchaser in the United States. 24/7 CFE also has positive externalities — when we advance 24/7 CFE, we help decarbonize electricity grids for everyone.
QUESTION 9: A main selling point of these climate gatherings is the intersectionality between many different stakeholders at once. How do you connect with the energy community outside of Google and has it helped you facilitate any of your projects?
Absolutely — we’re firm believers that we are all in this effort to address the climate crisis together. Our team participates in all sorts of events, from large conferences and expos, to smaller and more intimate roundtable discussions with community stakeholders.
Google also helped found and chairs the Board of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), which brings together over 230 renewable energy buyers, developers, and service providers to advocate for any company, anywhere, to have access to purchase renewables in the United States. We also helped launch the Re-Source Platform in 2018, which brings together renewable energy buyers and developers to educate policymakers and break down barriers to corporate renewable energy sourcing in Europe. Through these types of platforms, we hope to facilitate progress towards our own energy goals and enable others to pursue their own.
We also try to stay connected by sharing our progress in white papers, as well as in our podcast, Where the Internet Lives, where we share a look into Google’s data centers, including our global energy strategy. We also try to engage with other climate-focused podcasts — the Interchange and My Climate Journey podcasts are two recent examples.
QUESTION 10: What are you most excited for this year and what challenges are you looking to tackle? And how can Dynamo Energy Hub help Google meet the challenges ahead?
We’re incredibly excited to be a part of the Dynamo network! We see a lot of value in Dynamo bringing together organizations focused on so many different angles of clean energy and so many paths to decarbonization, and creating space for dialogue. I’m looking forward to connecting with everyone at the next Dynamo event — which hopefully will be in person in the near future!
Thank you so much for writing in Michelle, we are thrilled to have Google as such an involved member with Dynamo Energy Hub and are excited to continue spreading awareness of all that Google is doing in this space!
If you want to know more about Google’s work in sustainability, see the following resources below: