Many of the leading companies in the online market are beginning to invest in alternative solutions that let them use the planet’s resources more sustainably. The internet giants are taking on the global challenge of fighting climate change, finally taking concrete action rather than launching online campaigns. In the popular imagination, pollution is thick, black smoke belching out of chimneys at big factories. But with the unstoppable rise of over-the-top (OTT) services, the handful of companies that own most of the market on the internet are posing new problems of energy efficiency and pollution. New technologies, cutting-edge gadgets and above all artificial intelligence (AI) are raising questions that have yet to be addressed.
Google’s investments plan
Will software, machine learning (that is, computers’ ability to learn from their own “experience” interacting with people and other machines) and the Internet of Things (in which devices interact to provide services without human instruction) play a part in the challenges taken on by more and more countries around the world?
The answer is uncertain and by no means simple. But let’s try and trace how things got where they are with the example of one of the biggest companies on the net today: Google. The American giant officially launched a wide-ranging programme of investment to get on board with the agreements made at COP 21, the 2015 climate conference held in Paris, a font of measures for fighting climate change. Innovating the renewable energy market, forming responsible distribution chains and products that use AI to encourage sustainability are but a few of its stated aims. Fundamental to this all is the need for a paradigm shift. In other words, sustainability must be at the centre of every company initiative, whether it’s planning powerful data centres, producing better devices or setting up sustainable workplaces. The engineers at Google have come up with a “recommendation system” for energy efficiency based on AI. It controls air conditioning at data centres by itself. This system uses a cloud (meaning a server that processes and stores data remotely) and saves about 30% more energy than conventional systems.
Google’s Southland Data Center in Iowa
New monitoring methods
AI is of the utmost importance to other projects, which whatever their differences have a shared goal: protecting the environment. The “Global Fishing Watch” is a research project and platform launched by Google, Oceana and SkyTruth in aid of sustainability in the oceans. The whole system is powered by AI and gathers data for visualising, monitoring and sharing information on fishing around the world, almost in real time, free of charge. Google has also signed an agreement with DeepMind and begun deploying machine learning algorithms at wind energy plants in the American Midwest, which have brought their former energy production capacity of 700 MW up by about 20%.
Constant monitoring by cutting-edge software has clear benefits for plants that produce and process energy. But AI makes prevention more efficient, too. For example, in the Patna area, in India, they’ve installed sensors that give accurate information on and live forecasts of floods, and even send warnings to people in danger. This innovation is even more useful when you consider that 250 million people in the world are flooded every year.
In the renewable energy sector, too, everything is in constant evolution. In 2017, Google decided to satisfy its own electricity needs with energy from renewable sources. Two years later, in September 2019, the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, announced the biggest ever purchase of renewable energy by a private company, in the form of 52 wind and solar plants with a total production capacity of over 5 GW. They will see 7 million dollars in new investment and thousands of jobs created around the world to staff them. It’s estimated that, when the projects are in full flow, they will produce more energy in a year than cities like Washington and countries like Lithuania and Uruguay.
In Europe, the American company reports that its purchases have led to 2.3 billion euros in investments in the sector, and the approach has been repeated in its own country, with impressive examples. In the state of Georgia, through collaborations with other big companies, Google has started its first renewable energy service, with local supplier Georgia Power.
At the global level and in commercial terms, Google is a founding member of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA). The group brings together more than 300 buyers, processors and suppliers of renewable energy, to open the way for all companies to get their hands on renewable energy. The association is looking to buy 60 GW of renewable energy by 2025.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO
Made by Google
Two other initiatives cover material and distribution chains. All Google Nest products in 2019 were made of recycled plastic and every delivery of original Google products to and from customers was carbon-neutral.
When it comes to recycling old devices, Google has a collection service in 16 countries that lets customers do just that, properly and free of charge, whether or not the products are its own. In the United States, there is also the option of exchanging them.
Read more on low carbon
Selected contents on this issue.