The future may not only be bright, but it looks like it may be tinged with green as well. With green energy more popular than ever, some of the biggest names in tech, like Google and Amazon, are coming out and pushing power companies towards solar, wind, and clean energy alternatives to coal. And the push to go green has a lot to do with us small consumers as well.
Anytime you do something on the internet, more than likely, you’re pulling electricity from a wind turbine in Texas or a solar farm somewhere in Virginia. And unbeknownst to you, all your clicks and taps on the keyboard may have been helping build these clean energy sources all along.
Since 2008, renewable energy has gone from nine percent to 18 percent of the U.S. energy mix according to recent reports from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. A big part of that shift stems from tech companies’ rapid buildout of cloud storage centers and a move to burnish their public image by vowing to run their data centers on sources like wind and solar. In response, the nation’s power companies are beginning to change policies and create deals that meet increased demands for renewable energy rather than lose some of their biggest deep-pocketed customers. And in some cases, these companies are shifting away from traditional electricity suppliers like coal and natural gas altogether.
In total, renewable sources generated 717 terawatt-hours of energy in 2017, an increase of 89 terawatt-hours over last year. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the top four corporate users of renewable energy in the world were: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. A few other big named companies, like Walmart, GM, and Budweiser have also recently made a vow to run more of their global business off renewable energy.
However, while green and renewable energy is good for the environment, there are a few downsides. For one, migrating to clean energy means we’ll be left with a struggling coal industry. Coal producers have seen their share of U.S. power generation decrease since 2008. While the industry has the support of the government, the problem is that a growing portion of the marketplace is demanding green energy.
“There’s no federal or state law out there today that says you must do this, but there are boards of directors that say ‘We want to set a carbon footprint goal for our companies,’” said Appalachian Power President and COO, Chris Beam. Today, Appalachian Power generates 61 percent of its electricity by burning coal and five percent from wind and solar. Beam says he hopes that by 2023, the energy mix will be 51 percent coal and 25 percent wind and solar.
As big named companies make the move towards a greener future, the trickle-down effect has been set into motion. Apple, which released reports last month that 100% of the electricity it uses for its facilities and data centers comes from renewables, says nearly two dozen of its suppliers – such as manufacturers of batteries, keyboards and lenses – have also made a commitment to 100% renewable energy.
But the renewable movement has taken quite a while to gain some traction. The tech push towards renewable began in earnest in 2011, when Greenpeace, a global independent campaigning organization, released a report calling out data centers for being huge users of electricity created by non-renewable sources. At the time, Greenpeace’s public callout came at a very opportune time. Going green not only fit tech’s corporate ethos, but the companies had available cash to begin making the transition.
Another positive piece of news for renewable energy is that the price of lithium-ion batteries is falling. Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are approximately 23 percent cheaper than they were a year ago, according to the Bloomberg report, and this lower cost means energy storage facilities are much cheaper to build. This, in turn, makes solar and wind projects more attractive because utilities can be less concerned about whether those projects will be generating energy at any given moment.
To put all of this into perspective, nuclear power currently generates 20 percent of all U.S. energy, which means renewable sources, when taken all together, are on the verge of eclipsing nuclear. If these current growth rates hold steady, which should happen within the next year or so, renewable energy could become the third-largest source of energy in the United States.
All together, the Bloomberg Business report indicates that the American renewable energy industry is continuing to flourish.