Google needs a lot of energy to keep its data centers humming around the world. That can get dirty, environmentally, so the the world’s largest Internet search company is trying to get its power from renewable sources.
The latest effort, announced Tuesday, is a deal with a small, Native American-owned firm called Chermac Energy, which is developing the Happy Hereford wind farm outside Amarillo, Texas.
Google said it agreed to buy the entire 240 megawatt output of the wind farm, which is expected to start producing energy in late 2014.
This is Google’s fifth long-term energy agreement like this and its largest so far. The company has contracts for more than 570 megawatts of wind energy – enough to power about 170,000 houses, it noted.
Google can’t use this energy directly in its data centers, but the company gets credit for the renewable energy and sells it to the wholesale market. That’s a contrast to some other parts of the world. In Sweden, Google said it can buy wind energy and use it in its Hamina, Finland data center.
Data centers use a lot of energy, so sourcing power efficiently gives technology companies an edge. In early 2010, Google got a license to trade energy on the wholesale market, which allows the company to buy in bulk, a useful advantage.
The equipment that’s powering America’s wind energy boom is increasingly being made right at home.
In 2007, just 25 percent of turbine components used in new wind farms in the U.S. were produced domestically. By last year, that figure had risen to 72 percent, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy. And exports of such equipment rose to $388 million last year, up from $16 million in 2007.
This happened even as the U.S. was installing a whole lot of turbines. More than 13.1 gigawatts of new wind power capacity was added to the U.S. grid in 2012, representing $25 billion of investment. That made wind the nation’s fastest-growing electricity source last year, faster even than natural gas–fueled power.
Unfortunately, there were job losses in the sector last year, with the number of wind industry manufacturing jobs falling to 25,500 from 30,000 the year before. That’s because there was a lull and some factory closures after a mad scramble to fulfill orders placed before a federal tax credit expired. (It was renewed for this year, but its future is still up in the air.)
The better news is that the number of workers both indirectly and directly employed by the sector grew to 80,700 in 2012, up from 75,000 the year before.
And as the wind energy sector has grown, so too has the diversity of companies that comprise it, as shown in this chart from the DOE report:
Renewable energy production hit an all-time high in the United States in 2012, according to a recent annual energy report.
A combination of government incentives and technological innovations has helped solar and wind power grow in the United States in recent years, the report suggests. From 2011 to 2012, production increased by 49 percent and wind energy increased by 16 percent, according to a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory annual energy analysis published earlier this month.
“I attribute the steady growth to technological advancements as well as tax incentives and state mandates for renewable energy,” said A.J. Simon, an energy analyst at LLNL, who wrote the report. “I would expect this to continue for a while.”
Though the trend is notable, wind and solar energy combined still accounted for only about 2 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2012. Denmark and Spain, in comparison, produced an average of about 30 percent of their energy from wind power last year. [Power of the Future: 10 Ways to Run the 21st Century]
Oil and natural gas accounted for the majority of energy consumption in the United States, and will likely continue to dominate given recent investments in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” Simon said. Fracking is the forceful injection of water, sand and chemicals deep into shale rock that releases previously trapped oil and gas deposits.
By opening up reservoirs of cheap and accessible fossil fuels, fracking could slow efforts to expand renewable energy, though this remains uncertain, according to Simon.
Still, those involved in solar and wind energy production in the United States remain confident that these alternative options will continue to grow despite advancements in fracking.
“The turbines are capturing more energy and [the wind industry] is managing to keep costs low,” said Jason Cotrell, the manager of wind turbine technology and innovation with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Recent efforts to improve wind power have focused on making the turbines taller so that they reach stronger air currents higher above the ground. This would allow wind farms to expand to areas that have previously been unsuitable for turbines due to low ground-level wind speeds.
“That would be the potential game-changer, when every state in the U.S. could benefit from wind,” Cotrell said.
Solar power has also benefitted from new innovations, but its recent success stems largely from a global oversupply of photovoltaic cells. The combined effects of the economic downturn in 2008 and overambitious renewable policies around the world resulted in an abundance of panels and a relatively small market, according to Tom Kimbis, vice president of Solar Energy Industries Association.
At this point, Kimbis said, expanding the reach of solar energy depends more on the price of the panels than improving their efficiency.
“The efficiency of the panels is now good,” Kimbis said. “The industry has been working to improve efficiency of solar cells for decades and it’s easy to buy a solar module with a 20 percent or higher efficiency today. That’s not really the issue right now. The issue that people care about is how much will it cost and will it work for them.”
Costs depend largely on government tax incentives, which vary from state to state and from year to year. Cotrell and Kimbis both believe that current work in innovating solar and wind power will continue to reduce baseline prices and increase the prevalence of renewable energy in the United States.