Google has announced its entire global business will be powered by renewable energy in 2017.

The internet giant first made its pledge to be powered solely by renewables back in 2012. In the five years since then the company has embarked on an aggressive strategy to rid itself of any reliance on energy produced from fossil fuels.

Making the announcement, Urs Hölzle, Google’s Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure, said: “This is a huge milestone. We were one of the first corporations to create large-scale, long-term contracts to buy renewable energy directly. Today, we are the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable power, with commitments reaching 2.6 gigawatts (2,600 megawatts) of wind and solar energy. That’s bigger than many large utilities.”

Google is not alone in its drive to power a global corporation using renewable energy, but as the chart below shows, it’s far and away the biggest buyer of clean energy among the major western corporates.

 Cumulative corporate renewable energy
Image: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Meeting energy demands

For Google the drive for clean energy begins at home. Look down on the roof of its headquarters in Mountain View, Silicon Valley and you’ll see the biggest corporate solar power array in the world. Google says the system produces 1.9 megawatts, enough to supply 30% of the power needed to run Mountain View during peak periods.

 Silicon Valley
Image: Google

Powering Mountain View sends a message of commitment from Google HQ, but its energy needs are a drop in the ocean compared with the huge amount of electricity it takes to power the trillions of searches, downloads and uploads happening every minute across Google platforms. In 2015, Google’s activities consumed 5.7 terrawatt hours of electricity across all of its operations. That’s almost as much as the city of San Francisco used in the same year.

In order to meet the colossal demand, Google buys energy directly from suppliers; its biggest purchase is from wind farms. Google describes wind energy as “essentially free”, as there is no requirement for fuel to generate the electricity.

Renewable energy makes good business sense

Google says using sources like wind protects it from fluctuations in the price of oil and coal used to generate non-renewable energy. Taking the green energy route, according to Google, makes good business sense.

Increasingly, businesses are seeing the opportunities in embracing renewable energy. More than 80 of the world’s leading companies have made a commitment to go 100% renewable. Facebook, Microsoft, IKEA and Nestle are among 83 RE100 partners aiming to eliminate any reliance on energy produced from fossil fuels.

A boom in renewables

With the cost of renewables falling, uptake is growing dramatically and the infrastructure to deliver on growing demand is springing up at record pace. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), 2015 was the year when renewables overtook coal to become the largest source of global energy capacity. As the infographic below shows, the IEA believes the move toward renewables will gather pace over the next five years.

Image: International Energy Agency

Emily Farnworth, Head of Climate Initiatives at the World Economic Forum, believes the business and environmental imperatives for renewable energy are well established. “There is now strong momentum for climate action – and renewables in particular – driven by the strong business case,” she said.

Conflicting priorities

The incoming US administration has pledged to scrap or water down climate-change agreements and revitalize the American coal industry. But with commitments to renewable energy embedded in the culture of many leading global corporations, President Trump may find his policy becomes a tough sell.

Back at Google, Urs Hölzle is very clear that the business will not be diverted from its commitment to renewable energy, saying: "The science tells us that tackling climate change is an urgent global priority. We believe the private sector, in partnership with policy leaders, must take bold steps, and that we can do so in a way that leads to growth and opportunity. And we have a responsibility to do so – to our users and the environment.