The POWER Interview: Google, Utilities Partner for Energy Solutions

Businesses are putting more emphasis on sustainability, coordinating their operations to ensure financial success while also being mindful of environmental concerns. Investors in many cases are demanding companies embrace sustainability, which often includes being more efficient in their use of energy.

That’s one reason behind the growth in distributed power generation, as companies develop their own systems—often utilizing renewable power—to have more control over their energy use and its cost. Several of these companies have told their stories, and provided information about their commercial and industrial power installations, at POWER’s Distributed Energy Conference.

This year’s conference is scheduled for Oct. 19-21 in Chicago, Illinois. Sustainability will again be part of the agenda, with businesses discussing how they are developing programs to address financial, social, and environmental concerns.In the corporate world, it is sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line.

Aaron Berndt

Google, the Silicon Valley-based search engine giant, has become a leader in sustainable business practices, purchasing renewable energy to match its global power consumption. The company has contracts to buy renewable energy from projects across the globe, and it has developed its own products to promote efficient energy use.

Aaron Berndt, head of energy sales partnerships at Google, spoke recently with POWER about how some utilities are working toward clean energy goals, and about Google’s own initiatives around sustainable business practices.

POWER: What are the biggest challenges for utilities that have announced clean energy goals? How can they secure regulatory support? How can they secure financial support for new technologies?

Berndt: Utilities with clean energy goals are evolving toward a cleaner future that many customers demand. Oftentimes the money is with the majority opinion, which has shifted favorably toward clean energy in recent years. When utilities step up to work toward clean energy goals, they may have ideological support but will still face the logistical challenges of a more dynamic grid system.

As renewable energy sources continue to become cheaper to produce than fossil fuels, utilities should be able to level out costs associated with the shift. More tactically, pilot programs have been an effective strategy for utilities to prove out the capabilities of new clean energy technologies. Several years ago we were running many smart thermostats demand response (DR) pilots with our utility partners. Since then those have significantly scaled and we have programs all across the country with documented cost-effective results that could be leveraged to build the financial case to regulators.

POWER: Most people think of solar and wind power, and energy storage, when they think of how businesses, cities, and states will achieve clean energy goals, satisfy government mandates, and achieve sustainability goals. Are there other technologies that will become more readily available—and be cost-effective—to help achieve these goals?

Berndt: While some of the most popular avenues to achieving clean energy goals are through wind, solar and storage systems, there are technologies already in most households that can be used for demand-side initiatives that support these commitments. Devices like smart thermostats offer a way for utilities to engage customers and boost voluntary participation in DR programs and efficiency measures. These programs offer incentives in exchange for customer participation.

For example, Duke Energy, the second largest utility in the U.S., just launched its DR program with Google’s Rush Hour Rewards program. It offers customers $75 just to enroll and pays customers each year they remain in the program. In Michigan, DTE provides Google Home Minis as an incentive to enroll in the utility’s DR program called Smart Savers. This model of using voice-assistant devices to encourage customer enrollment is expected to expand significantly in 2020. Each of these programs was created and implemented by EnergyHub, a distributed energy resource (DER) management company.

The Google Nest learning thermostat has helped homeowners save billions of kilowatt-hours of energy. Courtesy: Google

Another great example is Leap’s integration with Google Nest’s DR program, which allows customers across the (San Francisco) Bay Area and Northern California to enroll their Nest thermostats into its turnkey platform that provides automated, flexible demand capacity to the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). Customers have already enrolled more than 2,500 Nest thermostats in the Leap plan to date, with hopes that thousands more will enroll. Leap also enables customers to benefit from other energy-saving conveniences by offering the Nest Hub as a reward for enrollment, giving people the ability to turn Google Assistant-connected devices off through voice or pre-set routines.

POWER: Should state governments work across borders to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology?

Berndt: Collaborating across state borders is difficult but not impossible. The benefit of many technology advancements like renewable energy is that lessons learned in one state can easily apply to an entire region. Other technologies are entirely neutral in terms of geography and can be implemented anywhere. It is often easier said than done, but everyone benefits when there is a system for sharing lessons and experiences. As an increasing number of local governments establish clean energy targets, tapping into existing resources from states that are further along in the emissions-reduction process will avoid reinventing the wheel when time is of the essence and the climate crisis calls for urgent action.

POWER: What are the best ways to promote investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and even in advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology?

Berndt: It’s best to lead by example. When private companies step up and show leadership by investing in renewables and committing to sustainable practices regardless of governmental support, it makes a statement that investing in a clean energy future is non-negotiable.

It’s also important to share data that demonstrate results and lessons learned to make it easier for others to take sustainable action. Reports like SEPA’s recent 2019 Utility Demand Response Market Snapshot show that DR is an important tool for balancing the grid, and new technologies are making DR programs even more advanced. The latest Google Environmental Report provides our environmental performance data from the past year and an overview of how we’ve accomplished our sustainability goals, as well as outlines our mission to help others to do the same.

POWER: Please share insights on Google Nest’s clean energy goals and sustainability efforts, including how they set and accomplish these goals.

Berndt: Google has a longstanding commitment to climate action and environmental stewardship. Sustainability has been a core value since Google’s founding, and we strive to build sustainability into everything we do. In 2018, we achieved 12 consecutive years of carbon neutrality and, for the second year in a row, matched 100% of the electricity consumption of our global operations with renewable energy. We also announced our long-term goal to power our operations with carbon-free energy, 24×7, 365 days a year. By the end of 2018, we had contracts to purchase more than 3.75 GW of output from renewable energy projects. These contracts have led to nearly $5 billion in new capital investment in projects around the world.

Beyond Google’s operations, we’re expanding access to the benefits of technology through energy-saving initiatives like the Nest Power Project, which aims to raise awareness of the energy burden, provide help to people struggling with high energy costs, and create a platform for people to help one another out. By the end of 2018, Nest thermostats had helped customers cumulatively save more than 29 billion kWh of energy—enough to power all of San Francisco’s electricity consumption for five years. That’s equivalent to avoiding 9.6 million tCO2e emissions—or taking more than 2 million cars off the road for a year.

We set our goals after internal assessments that identify and prioritize content for our environmental reports that consider Google’s impact on sustainability, the importance of environmental sustainability issues to our business strategy, and the perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders outside of Google. We’ve been able to achieve these goals by focusing on innovation, leveraging artificial intelligence and new technologies, and capitalizing on collaborative public-private partnerships.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).


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