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Google sets a new challenge for renewable energy

1 minute read

Ed Crooks

Vice-Chair, Americas

Ed examines the forces shaping the energy industry globally

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When Google filed its registration form for its flotation in 2004, it included a letter from the company’s founders described as an “owner’s manual” for new shareholders. “Don’t be evil”, it said. “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.”

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has retained the “don’t be evil” motto. But over the past 16 years its commitment to that principle has come under increasingly intense scrutiny. This year the stock market valuations of Alphabet and other big tech companies such as Facebook have soared. Alphabet’s market capitalisation is almost $1.5 trillion. But at the same time, those companies have faced mounting criticism over their impact on society.

Energy is one of the areas where Big Tech has been seeking to demonstrate its social responsibility credentials. The large tech companies are all big users of electricity to keep their servers running, and they have all been making efforts to mitigate the effects of that in greenhouse gas emissions.

This week, as the west coast heartland of America’s tech industry has continued to burn with wildfires that are in part a consequence of climate change, big tech companies have been speaking out about their contributions to addressing the threat of even greater damage over the long term. Their statements have been instructive about the challenges involved in the decarbonisation of energy.

Sunder Pichai, Alphabet’s chief executive, this week announced that the company had “eliminated Google’s entire carbon legacy”, meaning that it had covered all the emissions it has generated in its history by buying “high-quality carbon offsets”. The effect of this, he said, was that “Google's lifetime net carbon footprint is now zero”.

The approach is similar to the one that Google and other tech companies have been using for some time to reduce their net emissions. Google has since 2017 been buying enough renewable energy to match all of its electricity use.

In press coverage you would quite often see this described as “being powered 100% by renewable energy”, or something similar, but that is not really accurate. Google and other companies are still using grid power that relies on gas, coal and nuclear plants, and matching that by paying for wind and solar power around the world that they do not use.

This week, however, Pichai committed Google to the much more demanding target of operating entirely on carbon-free electricity 24/7 by 2030. He described it as “our biggest sustainability moonshot yet, with enormous practical and technical complexity”. Google is the first company to set itself such a challenging objective.

Pichai argued that it was achievable, through advances such as combining wind power, often strongest at night, with solar, only available during the day. The company will have to invest heavily in battery storage. And it plans to use AI to improve power demand management and forecasting. But the scale of the effort needed was indicated by the estimate of the impact on employment: Pichai said he thought the initiative would help create 12,000 jobs by 2025.

Also this week, Facebook set a goal of by 2030 reaching net zero emissions from its operations, its energy use and its supply chain, known respectively as scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Its plans include cutting its own and its suppliers’ emissions by increasing efficiency, buying renewable energy, and using materials with lower carbon impacts.

It does not expect to be able to cut its emissions to zero that way, however, and so plans to invest in carbon removal to offset its remaining footprint. Initially, at least, that means paying for forest conservation, although Facebook is also investing in emerging technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the air.

There is a clear contrast between the two companies’ plans. Facebook’s commitment, while undoubtedly significant, relies on a familiar strategy in the use of carbon offsets. The use of forest preservation for offsetting emissions has been widely criticised, and the fact that two areas of forest in California and Oregon used for offsets have apparently been destroyed in the latest wildfires has been a reminder of the limitations of that approach.

Google, on the other hand, is trying something entirely new in attempting to run its business 24/7 on renewable electricity. If it succeeds, it will set down a marker for the rest of the tech industry and beyond in terms of what renewable energy and storage can achieve.

Corporate procurement of wind and solar power in the US continued to grow rapidly last year. And although the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to investment this year, the longer-term trends look likely to drive continued growth in spending on renewable energy by US companies.

The OPEC+ group gives non-compliant members more time

The OPEC+ group’s Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee held a videoconference on Thursday, and concluded with a statement that “reiterated the critical importance of adhering to full conformity [with agreed production limits] and compensating overproduced volumes as soon as possible.”

Member countries that have been producing above their limits were given some extra time to make up for it by producing less: they now have until the end of the year. But the group suggested it could move to restrict production further, warning that the global economic recovery “has not been even across the world”, and cases of Covid-19 cases have been on the rise in some countries. In those conditions, the statement said, it was important for OPEC+ to be “pro-active and pre-emptive”.

At the start of the meeting, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, delivered a strongly-worded warning to his fellow members about the need to deliver on their pledges to curb production. “Attempts to outsmart the market will not succeed and are counterproductive when we have the eyes, and the technology, of the world upon us,” he said.

The statements helped oil prices have their best week since June, with Brent crude trading at about $43 a barrel on Friday morning, up from about $39.50 on Monday.

In brief

BP published its annual Energy Outlook, which was particularly closely watched this year as the first since the company announced its plan to move away from oil and gas and towards renewable energy. The line that caught most of the headlines was that even in the company’s “business as usual” scenario, world oil demand is close to its peak. BP said that in all its scenarios “the structure of energy demand fundamentally ‎shifts, with a declining role for fossil fuels offset by an increasing share for renewable energy ‎and a growing role for electricity”. ‎

Bernard Looney, BP’s chief executive, acknowledged in an interview with the Financial Times that people are “anxious . . . in the traditional business” about the implications of the company’s strategy. However, the majority of staff “love” the strategy, he said, and company culture was “one of the things I worry about the least”.

BP aims to make oil-like returns from renewables. Greentech Media’s John Parnell explained how it could be done.

Bill Gates warned that ignoring climate change would be “a gigantic mistake”, and argued that the world needed to work on solutions “many decades” before they are deployed.

In a blog post last month, Gates argued that: “Even with big breakthroughs in battery technology, electric vehicles will probably never be a practical solution for things like 18-wheelers, cargo ships, and passenger jets.” Elon Musk, who has announced plans for a Tesla electric 18-wheeler, rejected that assertion, saying Gates “has no clue”.

Other companies have also been working on electric heavy trucks. Scania this week launched its first electric truck range, and said it would in a few years be offering long-distance electric trucks. Hitachi argued that electrification of commercial vehicle fleets is “closer than you think”. 

Mercedes-Benz this week unveiled a hydrogen fuel cell concept truck. Customer trials are scheduled to begin in 2023.

The EU intends to end awards of free allowances under its emissions trading system, as part of its plan for a new carbon tax on imports. The EU aims to have the carbon border adjustment mechanism in place by the start of 2023 at the latest, but it still has hurdles to overcome, including approval by the WTO.

Hitachi has scrapped plans to build two new nuclear plants in the UK. The company said “the investment environment has become increasingly severe due to the impact of Covid-19”.

In the 2016 election campaign Donald Trump promised to “bring back coal”, but while he has been in office the US has been losing coal-fired power plants faster than in Barack Obama’s second term. The Wall Street Journal reported on the US coal industry today, observing that while production is declining at a faster rate than under Obama, “many in the industry fear things would be even worse under Biden".

The US should triple its spending on clean energy innovation to $25 billion a year, according to a report from a team of academics based at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. The report also sets out a plan for how the money could be spent effectively. It aims to be “the most detailed roadmap that exists for the next administration and Congress to hit the ground running and intelligently invest in critical innovation needs”.

The Business Roundtable, representing the CEOs of many of the largest US companies, has backed “a well-designed market-based mechanism” to address the threat of climate change.

And finally: our chemical of the week is phosphine, chemical formula PH3. It is a gas that may be familiar if you work in the plastics or semiconductor industries, where it is used in manufacturing processes, or in agriculture, where it is used as a pesticide, but it has not tended to hit the headlines very often. This week, however, that changed. A team of astronomers led by Jane Greaves of Cardiff University have discovered phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, using earth-based telescopes, and suggested that it could — perhaps — be evidence of life.

It is not the only possible explanation for their discovery. As the astronomers put it: “PH3 could originate from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or, by analogy with biological production of PH3 on Earth, from the presence of life.” In other words, if there isn’t life on Venus, then there are some other processes going on that we do not yet understand. The California-based company Rocket Lab is planning a mission to Venus in 2023, which may tell us more.

Other views

Linda Htein and Ann-Louise Hittle — How 2020 dealt tight oil another blow

Simon Flowers — Stemming the tide of plastic waste

Angus Rodger — Which of the Supermajors’ portfolios are most resilient?

Gavin Thompson — Could coal and renewables put the squeeze on gas?

GTM staff — What’s at stake for clean energy in the US election?

Ronald Brownstein — Why Republicans still don’t care about climate change

Clyde Russell — The crude oil industry is starting to hear echoes of coal’s demise

Noah Smith — How the 1970s changed the US economy

Erica Downs and Sheng Yan — Reform is in the pipelines: PipeChina and the restructuring of China’s natural gas market

Quote of the week

“Anyone who thinks they will get a word from me on what we will do next, is absolutely living in a La La Land... I’m going to make sure whoever gambles on this market will be ouching like hell.” — Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, told a news conference after the online meeting of the OPEC+ Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee that he would not give advanced warning of the group’s next moves on production limits. He added a message to anyone aiming to short the oil market: “Make my day”

Chart of the week

This comes from BP’s latest Energy Outlook. It is particularly interesting because it goes back to 1900 as well as forward to 2050, showing BP’s “rapid” energy transition scenario, consistent with meeting the goal of the Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. The chart shows how dominant coal was in the world’s energy mix at the start of the 20th century, and how oil rose to overtake it in the 1960s. In the future, BP’s chief economist Spencer Dale argued, we will see much less dominance of one or two energy sources, and a more diverse mix in which renewables, gas, oil, nuclear and even coal still have a role to play to the middle of the century and beyond.