President Obama’s recent article for the journal Science raised our eyebrows for a number of reasons—several of which are commented upon here by IER economist Bob Murphy. One issue Dr. Murphy didn’t take on, but which deserves mention, is Obama’s peddling of what we call the “100 percent renewable” myth. After suggesting that market forces, not government directives, are leading a shift toward renewable energy, Obama lets loose the misleading line:
[A]merican businesses are making the move toward renewable energy sources. Google, for example, announced last month that, in 2017, it plans to power 100% of its operations using renewable energy—in large part through large-scale, long-term contracts to buy renewable energy directly.
While we can’t say whether or not the outgoing president truly believes in the myth, we can say definitively that Google will not power 100 percent of its operations using renewable energy in 2017.
A Persistent Myth
As we’ve explained before, unless a home, business, or other establishment is disconnected from the electricity grid, it receives power from the same sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, etc.) as the rest of the customers on the same power grid. Companies, cities, and other entities that claim a “100 percent renewable” status (not to mention politicians granting them credence) are deceiving the public—it’s a dishonest habit that has become all too common with wind and solar activists. In reality, these entities are paying for a certain volume of energy to be produced from renewable sources, but they are not necessarily using said energy. Nor would they want to—renewable generation is intermittent, while data centers need a consistent, 24/7 supply of power.
In Google’s case, the deal is with a wind farm in Iowa. Does the arrangement mean that Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters will have a direct supply of energy from wind facilities in America’s heartland? Absolutely not. Customers, like Google, that pay for 100 percent renewable energy still receive their electricity from local distribution lines just like everyone else. As we discussed in 2015, what companies like Google (or Apple) are really doing is buying wind or solar electricity while they still enjoy the same reliable power as everyone else. In effect, they are greenwashing their brand without having to change their actual electricity supply.
Truth in the Fine Print
In Google’s defense, the company isn’t quite as audacious with its claims about renewable energy as President Obama. In the announcement of their plans, written by Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure Urs Hölzle, they explain that they’re buying wind and solar, but, of course, stop short of stating that they’ll actually use that power as Obama claims. Notice the use of the phrase “to account for” below:
To reach this goal we’ll be directly buying enough wind and solar electricity annually to account for every unit of electricity our operations consume, globally. And we’re focusing on creating new energy from renewable sources, so we only buy from projects that are funded by our purchases.
The announcement also links to a company document that details for interested users the process by which Google will obtain power, what “100 percent renewable” means, and what it doesn’t mean:
First, a little background: We know from Kirchoff’s circuit laws that electricity generated in one spot cannot be directed to a specific user over the electricity grid. Once you put electricity on the grid there is no actual way to know ‘the energy from wind farm X is going to my data center Y.’
Google even briefly lauds conventional electricity generation for its reliability and pans wind and solar for their diffuse, unreliable natures:
For one, the area necessary to harness sufficient energy to power a data center by either method is much larger than the actual area of a data center and its surrounding property. Also, neither the wind nor the sun are constantly available resources. They come and go with the weather, while Google’s data centers operate 24×7. No matter what, we’d need to be connected to the grid to access “conventional” power to accommodate our constant load. The plain truth is that the electric grid, with its mix of renewable and fossil generation, is an extremely useful and important tool for a data center operator, and with current technologies, renewable energy alone is not sufficiently reliable to power a data center.
Companies like Google and Apple proudly tout their purchases of wind and solar power, but, as Google understands, their business and their billions of users are dependent upon reliable and affordable power from the grid. With current technology, wind and solar energy is not sufficient to power a data center or any other high-energy, 24/7 operation for that matter. By propagating the “100 percent renewable” myth, these companies—and politicians like President Obama—create a false public understanding of the viability of wind and solar energy.
The fact of the matter is that, despite Obama’s flowery language, wind and solar aren’t capable of powering much of anything 100 percent of the time. Thankfully, we have reliable energy on the grid to do the heavy lifting. Now if only we can dispel this myth and give credit where it’s due.
 Google does supplement their consumption with a solar installation on-site. Like any solar installation, it provides power during hours of direct sunlight only.