When most people imagine the internet, the last thing that comes to mind is huge, on-the-ground facilities and thousands of miles of wires across the ocean floor, but even the digital age depends entirely on material things. Even the cloud, whose very name suggests an ethereal, floating datasphere free from servers, towers, and wires, is housed in data centers around the world. And those data centers require energy–a LOT of energy. As more and more people get connected to the internet around the world and spend increasingly lengthy amounts of time online, that means that the internet’s energy and ecological footprints are massive and growing. Especially now, when so many people around the world are working online all day before retiring to a relaxing evening online before sleeping next to a phone that is still awake and connected to the internet to receive all those emails and notifications while you dream, the energy usage of the data warehouses that run the internet has become astronomical.
“Google estimates that each search emits roughly 0.2 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere, due to the energy it takes to power the cables, routers, and servers that make Google work,” Wired reported back in 2018. “Watching or uploading a video to YouTube is worse for the environment: 1 gram of carbon for every 10 minutes of viewing.” All of those clicks really add up: internet companies emit as much carbon dioxide as the airline industry–and that was before COVID-19 grounded most planes.
Google, a company that has long taken an interest in curbing climate change and supporting green energy tech, is now hard at work trying to reverse the public perception of its massive data centers’ insatiable hunger for energy. You may have noticed that Google proudly boasts on their homepage that they’ve been carbon neutral since 2007–a major accomplishment considering the amount of carbon emissions they need to offset. So far, they’ve been achieving that by purchasing renewable energy credits and investing in solar and wind energies.
But carbon neutral is a far cry from carbon-free. Currently, Google relies on diesel-powered backup generators to keep their data centers running, a decidedly emissions-intensive model. For as loud as Google has been about their green energy innovations and carbon neutrality, however, the company has been mum about exactly how often their diesel-powered generators run and how much carbon dioxide they are emitting. But climate news outlet Grist reports that, according to Google’s own estimates, “worldwide, there are more than 20 gigawatts of diesel generating capacity in service across the data center industry, which is the equivalent of nearly 63 million solar photovoltaic panels — enough to power more than 833,000 homes for a month.”
In spite of these less-than-stellar stats, Google aims to be carbon-free 2030. One step toward that ambitious target: converting one of its massive server farms into one insanely big battery. Converting the diesel-powered backup system into a battery-powered model will have a two-fold advantage: a much smaller carbon footprint and the potential to store renewable energy when the batteries are not otherwise being used before distributing that energy to the local grid.
Google is already in the process of testing this method out at its data center in Saint-Ghislain, Belgium. If this new venture is a success, according to Google’s own vice president of global data centers Joe Kava, this new hybrid model of data centers that moonlight as renewable energy storage facilities could soon become “critical components in carbon-free energy systems.”
The innovation is timely: as the global emissions crisis becomes ever more urgent and more dire and Big Tech receives more attention and outrage from environmental activists, a solution to the energy-guzzling nature of data centers will be a huge boon to the planet as well as to Google’s reputation.