Google opened itself up to criticism on Sept. 8 when it revealed the amount of electricity it uses to power its data centers, while at the same time claiming that its existence has made the world greener. In addition to saying that its data centers use almost 260 million watts continuously (the equivalent of 200,000 U.S. homes), Google launched The Big Picture section of its Google Green site, which includes details about its electricity consumption, the amount of renewable electricity used in its grid, carbon dioxide emissions and its purchase of carbon offsets.
The announcement about its electricity use led to expected snarky comments on media sites ("At this rate of expansion, Google will need 5 nuclear power plants in 10 years to power its search," "Carbon offsets disguise just how good or bad a company really is"). Sharing details about its energy consumption concurrently with news about its green initiatives couldn't help but lead to the green aspect of the announcement being overshadowed.
But Google's announcement about its electricity usage was really a statement about corporate transparency—and on that level it succeeded.
Susan Nickbarg, principal of SVN Marketing, a sustainability and marketing services firm, says it's "encouraging" that Google released its energy use numbers. "I am hoping it will spur others to communicate their energy use practices with greater materiality and transparency because the relevancy and context of sustainability-related communications—as opposed to greenwash—will help advance the sustainability agenda," says Nickbarg.
Sustainable Business Network of Washington vice chair John Friedman, CSR-P, says Google's sharing of details about its electricity usage and carbon footprint was a strong, bold move. "By revealing its energy usage, Google has not only aknowledged its footprint, it has taken the first step toward managing its energy use and sourcing," Friedman says. "It would be unfortunate and misguided if those who advocate for transparency and accountability were to do anything but laud the company for its courage and convictions."
Media coverage inescapably focused on Google being a major global user of electricity—not a major global player in the green movement.
In fact, Google has already established itself in the green movement. In 2007, the company installed what was then the largest solar power array at its Mountain View, Calif., campus, just for starters. Through its philanthropic unit, Google.org, it has committed more than $100 million to clean energy and global health companies and organizations. But until now Google has kept quiet about how much electricity it actually uses.