Managing sustainability for one of the nation’s leading tech giants sounds impressive enough, but Kate Brandt used to do that for the leader of the free world. President Barack Obama appointed Brandt the nation’s first federal chief sustainability officer in March 2014, and she held that post through the most eventful period of climate and sustainability action by the U.S. government. That job entailed devising sustainability practices for the government’s 360,000 buildings, 650,000 vehicles and $445 billion in annually purchased goods and services. Google hired her in 2015 to lead sustainability for the Mountain View, California-based data and web service company. Brandt conceptualizes her sustainability mission within the idea of a circular economy. Rather than addressing energy usage, climate impacts and waste disposal as separate problems, this approach unites them all under an organizing principal of doing business while minimizing impact on the earth. In practice, this means a corporate goals of using 100 percent renewable energy and eliminating landfill waste from data centers. It means thinking systemwide to build and operate energy-hungry data centers with maximum efficiency, an approach she said saves hundreds of millions of dollars a year while using considerably less material. Greentech Media sat down with Brandt after her keynote at SXSW Eco in Austin last week to discuss the ways Google has impacted solar power markets, whether there’s hope for controlling data center energy use and the different ways technology can reduce climate impacts. The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed. Greentech Media: MGM made quite a splash recently for leaving its utility and buying its own power , but Google’s been doing that for several years now. When’s the last time you bought electricity from a utility? Kate Brandt: We’re taking the approach that we need to depending on where we’re buying. In the U.S. we’ve been focusing on power purchase agreements in deregulated markets, so that’s a lot of the work that we’ve done to date. We’ve also been engaging with policy makers and utilities on new structures in regulated markets, so for example in North Carolina we worked on the Green Source Rider , essentially a green tariff, and we announced our first project, which was a solar project that we’re doing in North Carolina under that structure. We also announced a project last year called Widow’s Creek where we’re repurposing a former [Tennessee Valley Authority] coal plant site and using some of the infrastructure and building a data center on the site and then working with TVA, who said they’ll work with us to make sure we can be 100 percent renewable from the start. We’ve published white papers on the green tariff model and we’re constantly engaging with utilities both as partners, but also to push and say our goal is 100 percent renewable and our goal is to make the grid greener for everyone and to create different structures like green tariffs that can work even in regulated markets. GTM: Are there things the company has learned in the course of this that were surprising or changed the way you approach buying clean power? KB: Yeah. We were one of the early users of PPAs as a model and we were really focused at the time on actually open-sourcing our approach, so we would put out white papers that talked about “Hey, this is how we did it.” We went to FERC and got direct access authority back in 2010. Apple got some attention for doing that recently; we did that quite some time ago. GTM: Down the road with the Google Energy division, do you see yourselves selling to other customers, or is it purely a self-supply venture? KB: Our focus right now has really been working towards meeting our 100 percent renewable goal and along the way really having a positive engagement on policy. What’s cool, and I didn’t fully appreciate this before I joined Google, is how sustainably we operate and our ability to operate on renewable energy. We’re actually able to then provide that back to our customers. An average business, if they switch to the Google G Suite of products, gets 65 to 85 percent savings in energy. When I was in government we did a partnership with the General Services Administration. The GSA switched to Gmail and we were able to do a case study of the difference in the amount of energy it took to run the email before and then Gmail. It was 98 percent less. GTM: And […]
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