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When you think of working at Google, what likely comes to mind are the legendary perks, the game rooms, free haircuts, and napping pods. But while the Silicon Valley titan has earned a reputation as a leader in corporate sustainability, less evident is its use of certain perks to encourage employees to reduce their own environmental footprints. Likewise, sometimes the supersmart “Googlers” are the ones pushing the green envelope.
Google’s sustainability cred comes in part from its status as the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy, not counting utilities. Since 2010, the company has signed 20 agreements to purchase roughly 2.6 gigawatts, about the same as taking 1.2 million cars off the road.
Google is also on track to reach its goal of using 100 percent clean power across its operations this year. To be clear, this does not mean that the company will run entirely on wind and solar, but that Google will purchase renewable electricity each year equal to the amount of electricity its global operations consume.
But clean energy is only part of the picture. The company has numerous energy efficiency and waste reduction initiatives at its offices and data centers, which save money while reducing environmental impact.
Because we’re talking about Google, these efforts often involve the use of various digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (more on that in a bit), to solve problems. For example, while Google provides compost bins in its famous cafés where employees chow down on free gourmet meals, its chefs use digital scales designed by a company called LeanPath to monitor supply and usage in the kitchen to improve meal planning and reduce waste in the preparation process.
The company thinks about waste in a “broader framework” and is trying “to design waste out of our systems altogether,” says Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer at Google. “It certainly has some parallels with energy efficiency — there’s a great business case for it as well a great environmental benefits.”
Through its waste reduction, composting, and reuse and recycling programs, Google has reached an 86 percent landfill diversion rate at its Bay Area offices and 78 percent globally. This year, the goal is another 10 percent reduction per Bay Area employee compared with 2015, as well as a new set of regional targets.
Bikes and Burgers
Food is one of two areas where perks at Google overlap with incentivizing employees to shrink their environmental footprint. The other is transportation.
First, workers must commute to the compounds where they infamously spend much of their time. The company’s shuttles, which run on 5 percent biofuel and include heavy-duty filtration systems, have been a fixture on Bay Area highways for a decade now.
In 2015, use of Google shuttles and the more recently added corporate electric vehicles netted an annual savings of 29,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of taking 5,700 cars off the road. Globally, the company has installed more than 1,600 electric vehicle charging ports at its offices and data centers, and employees can charge their cars at work for free.
The company also gives an electric pedal-assist bike, lock, and helmet to any employee at its Silicon Valley headquarters who wants to make biking his or her primary means of commuting.
The overall goal: to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting at the headquarters to 45 percent by transitioning more workers to shuttles, carpooling, public transit, biking, and walking. (Google does not prohibit working from home, but neither does it particularly promote it.)
Meanwhile, back at the company’s cafés, you’ll find more covert attempts at changing employee lifestyle. For example, Google is subtly nudging its workers toward a less meat-intensive diet, according to a recent report by Fast Company. Meat consumption contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions — by one estimate, raising livestock for meat, dairy, and eggs is responsible for 14.5 percent of emissions globally.
Google’s chefs prepare various vegan dishes — often made with “ugly produce” bought at a discount and saved from the landfill — but the company doesn’t try to convert meat lovers immediately to a fully vegetarian diet. Instead, its strategy is to reduce meat consumption, such as with its “blended” burger that uses mushrooms to cut the amount of beef in each patty.
Now here’s the covert part: Over time, the company has slowly increased the percentage of mushrooms, which add moisture and soak up the flavor of the beef as they cook, in each burger from 20 percent to 50 percent. In other dishes, meat might shift from being the center of the meal to a side or garnish.
Geeking Out on Energy Efficient Data Centers
Google corporate doesn’t always do the nudging. It has an incredibly talented staff coming up with new ideas during each lap in the onsite pool.
Brandt tells the story of Jim Gao, a former Google efficiency engineer who last year made it his mission to use artificial intelligence to reduce energy use at the company’s data centers, which as of 2015 already used 50 percent less energy than the industry average.
You probably don’t think about it every time you send an email, comment on a social media post, or watch the latest YouTube clip, but it takes a network of enormous energy-consuming data centers to keep the internet humming 24/7. This connectivity, like everything, comes at a cost.
Globally, data centers consume 3 percent of the world’s energy (around 420 terawatts) and emit 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, according to Yole Développement, a French market research and consulting company focused on the technology industry. Google has 14 data centers around the world and has long considered its servers to be the front line of its sustainability efforts.
Gao did his work via a 20% Project, a company program that allows employees to use 20 percent of their time at work to solve a particular problem. He had taken a class in machine learning, a type of AI that gives computers the ability to learn things without being explicitly programmed. Basically, computers can teach themselves through repetition how to interpret large amounts of data.
Google was already using machine learning to improve features like language translation and image recognition. When you ask Google Photos for pictures of cats in a box, Google’s machine learning algorithms find the photos you want. So Goa wondered: Why not use this tech to reduce server energy use?
He soon discovered why not. With all of the different variables, Goa and his data center intelligence team were looking at billions of distinct configurations, a set of possibilities far beyond the ability of any human to test. So Goa joined forces with Google’s leading AI research group, DeepMind, which had recently gained attention for its work on a computer agent that taught itself to play not just one, but every Atari game really well. (Goa now works for DeepMind full-time.)
Goa’s team and DeepMind used a model of broader, more generalized algorithms and came up with a solution: General beats specific. Since their discovery, the models have been piloted at multiple data centers and have produced a 40 percent reduction in energy used for cooling and a 15 percent reduction in overall energy overhead.
Goa is far from an anomaly. “Not a week goes by that I’m not talking to someone about a new idea or a potential 20% project,” says Brandt.
Google’s monstrous volume of servers has also become an example of deploying what’s called the “circular economy” at scale, says Brandt. The circular economy is the buzzword for the latest incarnation of waste reduction, which involves designing more efficient systems (or products or equipment) where materials are endlessly cycled back through via repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling. (Remember the LeanPath scale? That’s an example of designing waste out of a system.)
Google starts with server maintenance so equipment can be used as long as possible. Servers that can’t be kept on the floor get pulled off and sent to a central hub for remanufacturing. Functioning parts that the company no longer needs, such as hard drives, are wiped clean and sold on the secondary market. Anything left over gets recycled through the company’s recycling partners.
Last year, the company diverted 86 percent of its data center waste away from landfills. As of September, Google’s goal is zero waste to landfills at all 14 of its locations.
“We definitely set a stretch goal to reach zero waste to landfill, but this is the kind of challenge we get excited about,” says Brandt. “We like to solve these gnarly problems.”
Solve on, gnarly Googlers.