When Google opens its newest data center next year—on the grounds of a former coal power plant in Alabama—it will run on 100% renewable energy. That's emblematic of where the entire company is headed: Eventually, every time you search Google, or check Gmail, or watch YouTube, it will run on wind, solar, or some other type of clean power.
Google is already the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy in the world. Last week, it signed up to buy an extra 842 megawatts of new clean power, taking the company's total commitment up to 2 gigawatts, or the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.
But it's not the only massive corporation to commit to 100% renewable energy. So has IKEA. And Unilever. And Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Nike, Adobe, Philips, Proctor & Gamble, Starbucks, Walmart, and several of the other largest companies in the world.
All have joined the RE100, a project that invites influential corporations to go fully renewable.
"It originally started because we were looking at ways to simplify how companies could really drive climate action," says Emily Farnworth, the RE100 campaign director.
Around a quarter of all carbon emissions come from electricity generation, and almost half of that is used by businesses. The organization did the math, and realized that if they could convince businesses to switch to renewables, it was an opportunity to take 10%-15% of carbon out of the system.
"We knew, talking to businesses, that they were starting to talk about renewables," says Farnsworth. "The technology was improving, costs were coming down. Really it was a case of simplifying that message, and saying, you know what, it's not about doing 40% renewable. We want companies to make a commitment to 100%."
As corporation by corporation signs up, it sends a message to the rest of industry. "It's kind of normalizing this concept, so companies recognize that it is possible," she says. "It feels like an enormous goal. But actually when you break it down and you start thinking about what we can do now, and what we might be able to do more of in the future, then we can drive that delivery."
Some companies, like Google, had already committed to fully renewable power before they joined the coalition. But for Google, it's an opportunity to move faster. "We want to do everything we can to drive the transition to renewable energy," says Michael Terrell, principal for energy and global infrastructure at Google. "That means not only doing work on our own as a company, but leveraging the work of others, and working with others to drive this change forward."
Utilities, for example, are more likely to transform if a group of massive customers is asking for it. "Electric utilities haven't historically offered renewable energy as a product," he says. "It's usually just 'we sell energy, and you buy it.' We found that if we're not the only voice that's going to our power provider and asking for this solution, it helps. ... There's a lot of benefit to speaking as a group."
Having a larger group working together also means it's more likely they'll come up with new solutions and share them. "The more people who are thinking about renewable energy, and thinking about ways for customers to purchase renewable energy, the more solutions that we're going to have," says Terrell.
Google, for example, worked with Duke Energy in North Carolina to set up a new program to buy large amounts of solar power directly. Now they're sharing that solution with everyone else.
When RE100 launched in September 2014, there were 12 original partners. Now there are 53. Today, Coca-Cola, BMW Group, and four others joined the list.
"One of the things we're noticing is that once you get a few companies from a particular sector that make the commitment, there tends to be a sort of natural trend within that community that others want to look at what's happening and wonder whether they need to make the same move," says Farnsworth.
As companies join, each has a different target date. Some, like Microsoft, are already renewably powered. Others, like Goldman Sachs, are aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2020. Google, along with Nike and a few others, haven't set target dates, though RE100 strongly encourages it.
Google has committed to triple renewable energy purchasing by 2025, and says that it's possible it may be fully renewable before that point, but there are challenges to overcome first.
"If we could, we would be 100% renewable today," says Terrell. "But there's many regulatory and market challenges that actually prevent us from purchasing renewable energy in every place where we have an operation. What we're doing is doing everything we can to bring down those barriers and create new paths for viable renewable energy."
The shift needs to happen quickly, says Farnsworth, but it can. "The pace of change for renewables, particularly in the last 5 to 10 years, has been absolutely incredible. Most models haven't predicted it. ... We're really optimistic that the cost of technology to rapidly decarbonize the power sector, and energy efficiency in general, those two things together are going to be hugely important in terms of getting to that quick win in terms of carbon reduction."
If 1,000 companies commit to renewable energy, the organization has calculated that can eliminate at least 10% of global carbon emissions. And those companies can then influence the rest of the business world. "We'd like to get to a tipping point," says Farnsworth. "It's just meant to push everything else forward."