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In keeping with previous commitments to support renewable energy, Google on Friday announced that Duke Energy, which supplies power to Google's Lenoir, N.C. data center, has agreed to implement a program to help large companies like Google buy renewable power.
The program, which has to be approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, is described in a white paper that Google has published. It involves an optional "renewable energy tariff" to be paid by businesses that want renewable power and not by consumer utility customers. It coincides with Google's plan to expand its Lenoir data center.
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"Google's announcement shows what forward-thinking companies can accomplish when they are serious about powering their operations with clean energy," said Gary Cook, senior IT analyst at Greenpeace International, in a statement. "Before today, even large energy users in North Carolina were only offered dirty energy by Duke Energy: coal, nuclear and gas."
For companies that maintain a large data center footprint, there's considerable public pressure to use renewable energy. A 20-month campaign by Greenpeace prompted Facebook in late 2011 to commit to embrace renewable power.
Google sees its program as an improvement over other green energy incentives, like Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). RECs allow companies to pay to support renewable energy, but because they are a commodity, like carbon credits, they are not necessarily bundled with the clean energy they pay for. Thus, companies that buy unbundled RECs might end up obtaining energy that was generated from non-renewable resources such as coal even as they support renewable power generation.
Greenpeace last summer took issue with Apple's energy acquisition over just this issue, suggesting that there's a good chance Apple will have to buy some RECs while actually using energy generated from coal. Like Google, Apple buys energy for its Maiden, N.C., data center from Duke Energy.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request to clarify whether Greenpeace's claims are accurate. However, the company has made progress in moving toward renewable energy. It says its worldwide usage of renewable energy went from 35% to 75% between 2010 and 2012.
In March, Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer told Bloomberg, "The power we are using in North Carolina is 100% renewable and 0% coal." However, Wired last month reported that Apple's use of energy credits allows it to claim that its data centers run on 100% renewable energy, even though it still relies on non-renewable power from Duke Energy.
In a phone interview, Greenpeace's Cook said that it remains unclear how Apple is meeting its renewable power commitment. Cook said that Google's plan, if approved, "could really open the market for Apple and other large utility customers that have renewable energy commitments."