Google is promising to run all of its data centres and campuses on carbon-free energy within a decade, as the search engine group makes plans to ditch fossil fuels and acquiesce to a key demand from employees concerned about climate change.
The company says it may relocate some data centres to reach the new goal of operating entirely on clean energy such as wind, solar, batteries and hydropower by 2030.
The commitment is the latest in a series of high-profile moves by Big Tech companies as they vie to outdo each other with their green credentials, partly in response to employee demands.
Chief executive Sundar Pichai pointed to the wildfires raging across the west coast of the US, and said it was urgent for businesses to address climate change.
“It’s a more visceral reminder of why this is urgent,” he said, citing the smoky skies that have covered the Bay Area in recent days. “This generation owes it to the next generation [to address climate change] . . . The time to act is very narrow, and shrinking as we go.”
Microsoft announced earlier this year that it would be “carbon negative” by 2030, extracting more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it produces.
While Google is not taking that step, it has promised to draw all its power needs from clean energy sources all the time, so that no carbon dioxide is emitted in the first place.
“This will mean every email you send through Gmail, every question you ask Google Search, every YouTube video you watch, and every route you take using Google Maps, is supplied by clean energy every hour of every day,” said Mr Pichai.
Google now buys renewable energy credits equivalent to 100 per cent of its energy usage but the power running its data centres is not all renewable, and sometimes comes from fossil fuel sources.
The pledge to operate on carbon-free power will address one of four demands made by a group of thousands of Google employees concerned about climate change, who staged a walkout and wrote a letter to the chief financial officer last year.
Meeting the new target for carbon-free power put a “constraint” on the scale of computing power that Google would develop, Mr Pichai noted. The company did not provide an estimate of how much it would cost to shift to clean energy.
“It puts a lot of pressure on us to also solve for efficiency, [and develop] better algorithms,” he said. The company will also use artificial intelligence to help reach its carbon goal, for example by helping data centres run more efficiently.
The new target will pose significant technical challenges for such a large company, such as how to design batteries that are powerful enough to power a data centre when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow.
Mr Pichai suggested Google might tap into experimental projects under way at other arms of its Alphabet parent company, such as new energy storage technologies, for solutions.
Staff have also demanded that Google stop doing business with fossil fuel companies, and stop funding think-tanks and politicians who deny climate change. The company has not yet met those requests.
Google also announced on Monday that it had offset all historical carbon dioxide emissions since its founding in 1998.