The company’s newest site, Google Bay View, comprises three squat buildings located near the San Francisco Bay shoreline a few miles east of its Mountain View headquarters. The rooftops are the first thing that tourists notice. Like circus tents, they softly bend down from constricted peaks, falling almost to the ground. Each roof is covered in overlapping solar panels with a brushed metal finish around the edges. This design is dubbed Dragonscale by Google, and it does really resemble a magical beast coiled up by the river in Silicon Valley.
Google sees its newest campus as the physical manifestation of a larger goal to run its operations carbon-free. Depending on the pandemic, the firm hopes to open Bay View in January to “a limited number” of employees. Thousands of concrete pillars buried beneath the structures will act as a geothermal battery, storing heat to heat the building and provide water without the use of natural gas.
The roof panels are made of special textured glass that reduces glare and has canopies that provide a warm, glowing light into the interior atria. “We call this the Cathedral of Work,” explains Asim Tahir, who manages Google’s real estate division’s energy decisions. In a hard helmet, mask, and safety vest, he stands at the southern entrance.
Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc., peers inside for a closer look. During the epidemic, construction teams imposed tight entrance restrictions on all visitors, including the boss. It’s the first Friday of September, and the typically quiet CEO is eager to discuss his company’s climate goals with Bloomberg Green. The air is heavy with wildfire smoke outside, a new yearly reality for the whole state of California. Hurricane Ida is now wreaking havoc on the East Coast. Each tragedy demonstrates how far behind corporate America is in the battle against climate change.
Last year, Pichai revealed Google’s aim to power all of its offices and data centres on sustainable energy 24 hours a
day, seven days a week. He established a target of 2030, which is maybe the most ambitious corporate commitment to decarbonization ever made. Google refers to it as a moonshot, a word it uses to describe bold—and largely fruitless—projects like self-driving vehicles and delivery drones. “It’s a little stressful”, Pichai admits, “because we don’t have all the answers.”
The servers that power billions of online searches, emails, and mapping routes every day are housed in Google’s data centres, which consume the majority of the company’s electricity: 15.1 million megawatt-hours in 2020. Last year, Google fulfilled 67 percent of its hourly data centre power demands using renewable sources, up from 6 percent the year before. Certain data centres, such as those in Oklahoma and Oregon, run on sources that are near to or exceed 90% clean.
Google is depending on unconventional procurement contracts and a smorgasbord of innovative technologies, including lithium-ion battery storage, wind-prediction algorithms, and geothermal wells that dig into the Earth’s crust, to meet its objective. Microsoft Corp. followed Google’s lead earlier this summer by pledging to operate carbon-free 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These multitrillion-dollar firms are attempting to reduce carbon emissions while sustaining remarkable growth: Google and Microsoft made more than $91 billion in earnings last year, despite the fact that much of the economy was contracting.
Despite being large and powerful energy consumers, they are mostly at the mercy of fossil-fuel-based utilities. This is something Google is well aware of. “The ultimate goal is to get the electricity networks to be carbon-free all of the time,” Google’s head of energy Michael Terrell says. “We still don’t know the way everywhere, which is really difficult.”