By the start of the next decade Google wants to make sure all the electricity it uses for its data centers and offices will be truly 100% carbon free.

Under its previous pledge the tech giant has been offsetting its consumption with direct renewable electricity purchases and the associated certificates. On paper, that allowed it to claim it used 100% renewable electricity. But when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, it’s still drawing its power from polluting fossil fuels.

The new policy will ensure that doesn’t happen again.

As part of a series of commitments on Monday, Google also said it will leverage more than $5 billion dollars of investment in 5 gigawatts of wind, solar, nuclear and other new carbon-free energy projects across its supply chain over the next decade.  The company said the move will create 20,000 new jobs.

“The science is clear: The world must act now if we’re going to avert the worst consequences of climate change. We are committed to doing our part,” Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive officer, said in a blog post.

The announcement comes as wildfires rage across California and huge blazes darkened skies in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Google is headquartered.

To deliver clean energy around the clock Google will use a bundle of measures including pairing wind and solar projects, using more batteries to store power and investing in artificial intelligence to improve power demand and forecasting.

The decision shines a light on the inadequacy of companies using renewable energy certificates to meet their climate targets instead of directly buying power from projects.

For every renewable energy certificate bought, a company is guaranteed that someone somewhere will generate one unit of electricity using renewables.  But that doesn’t mean electricity used, say at night, won’t have emissions attached to it.

So despite the certificates officially covering all of Google’s demand, its data centers are only run on clean energy for 61% of a day on average, the company estimated.

“At the most basic level, this company is going to need to double-up, or even triple-up, on clean energy purchases,” said Kyle Harrison, analyst at Bloomberg NEF.

Pichai also announced Monday that Google has offset its historical emissions, effectively clearing its carbon debts for the past 22 years.  But those legacy emissions, from 1998 to 2006, are estimated to be smaller than one year of its current net operational emissions – less than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“By becoming the first major tech company to commit to power its data centers with carbon-free energy around the clock, Google is setting a new high bar for the sector,” said Elizabeth Jardim, senior corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA.


Microsoft Corp., which is also one of the world’s biggest buyers of clean power, announced a similar plan to fine tune its carbon-free target and has also pledged to eliminate its historical emissions debt.  But unlike Google, it’s created new financial products that can be added onto existing power purchase agreements and reduce the risk of intermittent renewable technologies.  It’s also decided to find technological and nature-based solutions to erase its past debts, instead of relying on offsets, which have proved controversial.


Why Carbon Offsets Don’t Do All That They Promise

Future carbon goals are more important for tackling climate change, particularly in expanding companies like Google, which has seen its power demand soar by 450% since 2010, according to BloombergNEF.

The analysts estimate Google will need to buy 15.5 terawatt hours of clean power by 2030 just to keep meeting its existing 100% renewable power target.  Much more will be needed to meet its new goal of round-the-clock carbon-free energy.

Google said it hopes more companies will follow suit.

“A big part of what we are aiming to do is provide a template and a blueprint, talk to people and show that it’s possible to get to carbon-free operations,” said Google spokeswoman Jenny Jamie.

Author: Jess Shankleman, Bloomberg Green