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Google: Good or Evil When It Comes to the Environment?

Google's motto is "Don't be evil." But when it comes to its environmental impact, some think the company can't live up to its own hype.
 
 
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Now that it has unseated Microsoft as Earth's most recognizable and influential technology behemoth, Google has gone from a crowd-favorite upstart to an octopus multinational beneath the bull's-eye. As such, its innovations in search, advertising, video, open sourcing, communications, computing and beyond have taken a backseat to legitimate concerns over everything from its impossible motto, "Don't Be Evil," to its carbon footprint. And while the former is a terminological chimera, the latter is an increasing problem for a planet that is practically warming by the day, due to a lethal combination of explosive global growth, rampant carbon dioxide emissions and lackluster world policy.

To mangle the cliche, the evil is in the details.

According to a recent Harper's annotation on Google's expansion, "In 2006, American data centers consumed more power than American televisions." That number is sure to rise, possibly exponentially, as Google breeds these data centers, or "server farms," like rabbits. And the company is far from alone: AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo and more are building out their infrastructures to accommodate the millions who are coming online and sharing not just lightweight information like email but also heavier content like video, images and audio.

According to the annotation's author, Ginger Strand, a new server farm being built by Google at The Dalles in Oregon is on target to chew up "103 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 82,000 homes or a city the size of Tacoma, Washington" -- by 2011. And Google isn't alone. Strand, who also authored the forthcoming Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies , explains that Google is soon to be joined on the Columbia River by server farms from Microsoft, Yahoo and Ask.com. By the time Google hits the 103-megawatt threshold in 2011, data-center power usage will have doubled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, the internet is no virtual world: Its energy costs will impact the real world like never before.

For its part, Google has promised to throw down the gauntlet on global warming. A year ago this month, Google's senior vice president of operations, Urs Hoelzle, promised that Google would be carbon-neutral by the end of 2007. Five months later, Google launched a strategic initiative RE "Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal," that invests funds and research into, as Google explained, "advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potentially breakthrough technologies."

"Our goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal," said Google co-founder Larry Page in the initiative announcement. "We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades. If we meet this goal, and large-scale renewable deployments are cheaper than coal, the world will have the option to meet a substantial portion of electricity needs from renewable sources and significantly reduce carbon emissions. We expect this would be a good business for us as well."

That's a fair expectation: One gigawatt can power San Francisco, and since coal makes up about 40 percent the world's electricity and is as dirty as Karl Rove, Google could score a sociopolitical and economic coup by kicking it to the curb in favor of renewable juice. It is the Holy Grail of climate crisis stratagems.

But is it possible? For starters, as of this writing, Google has yet to report on whether it followed through on Hoelzle's promise.

"Currently, we have a third party assessing our corporate emissions inventory and verifying our footprint for the 2007 calendar year," explains Niki Fenwick of Google's Global Communications and Public Affairs office. "Our footprint is calculated globally and includes our direct fuel use, purchased electricity, business travel, estimates for employee commuting, construction, and server manufacturing at our facilities around the world."

More importantly, Google refuses to divulge its current carbon footprint, a curious move for a company that has made its name on the crunching of reliable and openly available data. "For competitive reasons," adds Fenwick, "we do not disclose it."

Fenwick also refused to divulge when Google's evaluation will be completed, who is conducting it or what specific advantage would be lost should the company decide to open-source its current carbon footprint, which is of great value to not just its shareholders but the world at large. But that's just the way things work when your company's stock price is hovering around $540 a share, during a recession , of all things.

"Shareholders should be able to demand that information," explains Michael Graham Richards, Treehugger's science, tech, cars and transportation editor, "but third parties are just that, and it is Google's choice to reveal it or not."

Richards, for one, isn't as worried about Google's carbon footprint as he is about maximizing its energy efficiency. What Hoelzle promised "is possible for sure," he continues, but "the question is, at what cost? Would these resources better be used some other way? I think that Google's RE
They have already done that with convincing results. Every time you use Google's search engine, that's one less trip to the library in your car or on the bus. Every time you watch a video on Google, that's one less television you turn on. Every time you send an email via Gmail, that's one less postage stamp, envelope and mail truck ride. The ways in which Google has helped Earth increase efficiency are simply too mammoth to be capably documented. It has literally changed the way the world does business and has almost wiped out the need to commute to a physical job site for a great number of occupations, including many that still lamentably demand that their employees pollute their way to work when they could do just as good of a job from the comforts of their own bedrooms, probably in pajamas. Throw in the coolest perks of any employer on Earth, and it's pretty clear why, according to the New York-based Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient poll, Google recently displaced Microsoft as the company with the best reputation in corporate America.

"Google has made the world better in so many ways," Richards explains, "that I can't possibly begin to list all of them. We take it for granted. If you had told someone of my parents' generation -- when pocket calculators were an expensive luxury -- that in their lifetime they could search many billions of documents for specific phrases in less than a second for free, they wouldn't have believed you."

"Technology does have an impact on carbon emissions," Fenwick adds. "Sending an email or downloading an album has less impact than posting a letter or buying a CD. But we don't take that effect into account when determining our company's carbon footprint."

As for the data center buildout, Google is asking for patience and a closer look at its consumption, as far as its server farms are concerned. At least the company is doing something substantial; the same cannot not be said for AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google's other competitors, who have historically lagged behind when it comes to going green in the 21st century.

"We're increasing the energy efficiency of our own operations," Fenwick asserts. "Our data centers use 50 percent as much energy as a typical industry data center for the same amount of computing, through the adoption of increasingly efficient power supplies and evaporative cooling. We're actively pursuing the use and creation of clean and renewable sources of electricity. In fact, our first engineers dedicated to exploring renewable energy started work just last month. And for the emissions we can't directly reduce at this time, we're investing in high-quality projects that help offset carbon generated. Google will continue to look for ways to be greener as a company."

So while Harper's and other well-intentioned critics of Google's exponential expansion rightfully raise questions about its carbon footprint and future pollution, it's fair to counter that there is no shortage of offenders who have miles to go before they can catch up to Google's recent efforts. According to a report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, over 50 percent of the energy we derive from coal, petroleum, nuclear and other resources is lost or wasted, a damning indictment of our current policies of waste and pollution.

In other words, critics, green thyselves.

"Everything that uses energy is potentially an emission problem if that energy doesn't come from a clean source," Richards says, "but on the list of things that I'd like to shut down because they use energy, Google is very near the bottom. The company makes humanity better, by empowering individuals and giving access to information to everyone almost for free."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

 
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