Google’s Bid To Resell Power Is Primarily Capitalistic

Google Energy has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the right to buy and resell electricity to consumers as it seeks to keep its data centres fed with power

As the leading search provider with an interest in expanding its purview online through other web services, Google is acutely aware of its power consumption.

The company’s Google Energy subsidiary is charged with doing something about it and has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the right to buy and resell electricity to consumers as it seeks to keep its large data centres fed with power.

This request, which Google made on 23 December in an application obtained by eWEEK, is common among companies that devour power, including the Wal-Mart retail and Safeway grocery store chains.

Google houses thousands of thin, cheap rack-mount computers and other servers in large facilities all over the world. These servers work in parallel, routing search engine requests and queries for data from the company’s Google Apps to the next available computers and shooting the data back to consumers’ PCs, smartphones and other mobile devices.

This cloud computing model requires a tremendous amount of electricity, which costs Google a tremendous amount of money. By playing in the energy game, Google Energy said in its application to FERC, it can “contain and manage the cost of energy for Google.”

The group asked FERC to approve its request by 23 February. A Google spokesperson provided additional comment to eWEEK:

“Google is interested in procuring more renewable energy as part of our carbon neutrality commitment, and the ability to buy and sell energy on the wholesale market could give us more flexibility in doing so. We made this filing so we can have more flexibility in procuring power for Google’s own operations, including our data centres. This FERC authority would improve our ability to hedge our purchases of energy and incorporate renewables into our energy portfolio.”

In a 7 January interview with the New York Times, Google Energy czar Bill Weihl explained the mission in plainer language:


“One [motivation] is that we use a moderate amount of energy ourselves: we have a lot of servers, and we have 22,000 employees around the world with office buildings that consume a lot of energy. So we use energy and we care about the cost of that, we care about the environmental impact of it, and we care about the reliability of it.”

Given Google’s cloud computing footprint, it’s hard to see the company as a moderate consumer of power, but everything is relative. Weihl could no doubt point to companies and concerns that consume far more energy.

Weihl’s comments to the Times about Google’s intention to make money from alternative energy were equally interesting, and echo what Google has said in other business endeavors:

“We’d be delighted if some of this stuff actually made money, obviously; it is not our goal to not make money. All else being equal, we’d like to make as much money as we can, but the principal goal is to have a big impact for good.”

In that short summation, the tenor of Weihl’s comments is capitalistic, with the caveat of wanting to do good.

Indeed, while Google is asking FERC for permission to wield power in the power market, Google has also invested some $45 million (£28m) in alternative energy in the last few years. Some of that cash went to eSolar and BrightSource, both of which are building towers to capture sunlight and use it as a power source.

Writing in the Atlantic‘s Business section, Daniel Indiviglio ventured his best guess as to Google’s plans in the power market:

“What Google is likely doing here is bracing for the inevitable increase in energy prices associated with the depletion of fossil fuels. It would likely prefer to shape its energy destiny by relying on cheaper, renewable energy sources in the years to come. While this has pleasant environmental implications, there’s little doubt that Google has economic reasons for this endeavor as well.”

Chalk up Google’s power plans as capitalistic, with an altruistic bent.