MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This month in All Tech Considered, how technology and tech companies can help slow climate change.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
KELLY: The tech industry has been out front in the push for clean energy partly because tech consumes a lot of energy.
JENNIFER LAYKE: The amount of data that you need in order to fuel your YouTube or to run all of those Google searches - it's an enormous amount of energy. And it's something that many of the companies have struggled with.
KELLY: That's Jennifer Layke of World Resources Institute. She advises companies on clean energy - companies including Google. The company put out a paper last fall that looked at its data centers and asked, what would it take to power all of them around the clock with carbon-fee energy, no fossil fuels? Google has invested in wind and solar. But when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, Google draws energy from the grid just like everybody else. And as Jennifer Layke tells us, what Google found was what you get from the grid depends on where you are.
LAYKE: In many markets, the resource mix is going to be different. In a place like the Pacific Northwest, you have a lot of hydropower. It's already contributing to zero-carbon electricity. But in other markets, it's all coal. So how do you, as a company, begin to look at what the resources are and how you're going to match your electricity consumed with the resources that are available?
KELLY: Is one takeaway that these companies cannot put all their eggs in one basket? - meaning you can't just do solar. You can't just do wind. You can't just do hydro. I'm thinking of Iowa, where Google has invested in several wind farms.
LAYKE: Well, I mean, in places where you have variability, you're always going to be dependent on what happens when the wind doesn't blow. And so if you're looking at places where you have a very fossil fuel or coal-intensive mix the rest of the time, the question that Google asked itself is, am I creating a systems change? That coal plant may continue to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even if I add my wind during the day. And that's the conundrum. That's the challenge that the tech companies face when they're trying to think about how they put together their long-term plans.
KELLY: Google talks about firm carbon-free sources, meaning firm whether it's sunny, whether there's wind, etc. That would be what? Like, geothermal, other forms of energy?
LAYKE: Well, you certainly can do it with geothermal. A lot of places in many markets, you could actually firm up your wind with hydro. So that's what energy storage devices can do or energy storage capacity. But the problem we're going to have as a system is that you have only so much of these storage devices. That's why everybody's looking at the question of, can battery storage come into play?
KELLY: How realistic is this goal? How close are we to a huge company being able to go carbon-free around the clock?
LAYKE: There are still a number of challenges we're going to face. But the good news is that we've learned a lot in the last 20 years. When I started working in renewable energy in 2001, we thought that the maximum you could do was integrate 15 or 20% of wind into the system. And we...
KELLY: That was kind of the ceiling that you were looking at.
LAYKE: That was the ceiling. That was as much power as we thought was really going to be achieved by renewables. But we found out that, actually, you can get to 40, 50. And in the European countries, they're getting to 60, 70, 80% of the power that can come from these different resources because the rest of the system is operating.
KELLY: To what extent is what Google is doing able to serve as a blueprint for other companies?
LAYKE: I think that the important lesson from Google's analysis is that there are pathways. There is a sense that this is attainable and that there are going to be questions you have to tackle along the way. And I think that the piece that I was really encouraged to see is that they don't think that every company has to do this alone, that they actually do call out the need for policy change, for market signals to work and for technological innovation. This is a vastly different conversation than we had 20 years ago. It's because of companies like Google that we're actually asking the question, how far can we go in getting carbon-free electricity?
KELLY: And when you and I sit down and have this conversation in a decade or in 20 years, do you think we'll be talking about a Google that is running with no fossil fuels, carbon-free?
LAYKE: I think we'll get there.
KELLY: That was Jennifer Layke, global director of the Energy Program at World Resources Institute. Thanks so much for coming in.
LAYKE: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.