Will Google Energy Power Its Data Centers?

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A look at a working solar thermal power generation facility.

A look at a working solar thermal power generation facility.

Google (GOOG) has formed a new subsidiary to buy and sell power on the wholesale market, and hopes the move will help provide more renewable energy to meet its corporate carbon reduction goals. The company formed Google Energy last month and has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to allow it to participate in the energy markets.

“Right now, we can’t buy affordable, utility-scale, renewable energy in our markets,” Google representative Niki Fenwick told CNet. “We want to buy the highest quality, most affordable renewable energy wherever we can and use the green credits.”

Target: Data Centers?
Google isn’t saying how it will use any green energy it generates or purchases, but the company’s vast, power-hungry data center network could be the primary beneficiary. Google has shown an intense focus on energy efficiency in the design and operation of its data centers, and has also invested in renewable energy, primarily through its Google.org non-profit arm.

Google has previously invested in thermal solar power which use the sun’s heat to create steam to power electric generators. That’s a different approach than photovoltaic solar panels, which use semiconductor materials to directly convert sunlight into electrons. Google green energy czar Bill Weihl says the company has made progress on mirrors that could accelerate the development of thermal solar power at utility scale.

Potential for Geothermal
This week Weihl cited the promise of geothermal energy, which has been implemented recently in data centers in the midwest, including the LEED Platinum ACT data center in Iowa and the proposed Prairie Bunkers facility at a former ammo storage site in Nebraska.

“One really nice thing about enhanced geothermal is that it’s base load power: the fuel’s always there, whereas for solar and wind, sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow and you can’t produce any energy,” Weihl told The New York Times. “So we think enhanced geothermal is very promising. It has a ways to go before it gets to be really cost-competitive with coal, and it might never quite get there, but it’s got a big upside.”

Photo of solar thermal facility by aflores via Flickr.

About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor-in-chief of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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17 Comments

  1. TD

    Geothermal is interesting and will be a good long term energy source. Unfortunately the way it's being done with open loop systems is environmentally damaging. The methods in use are the same methods that are used to extract oil from shale and natural gas from some types of rock formations. High pressure water is injected into the rocks fracturing them, the earth heats the water and is retrieved. This has several environmental issues. 1) it uses tremendous amounts of fresh water. 2) It pollutes ground water as minerals and pollutants are released from the fractured rocks. 3) It can contribute to earthquakes as is occurring in a Google test area in central California. Fractured rock, liberally lubricated with water is very bad in earthquake prone areas. Of course the companies involved deny that anything bad could ever happen from their activities. The safest way to use geothermal is to use a closed loop system like the type used in residential heating applications. It is of course more expensive.