Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Google’s energy usage and renewable energy investments are raising questions over whether Eric Schmidt’s recent climate change statements are as altruistic as he or Google would have the public believe.
Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, speaks at an event in 2012.
Last week Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, accused the American Legislative Exchange Council of “literally lying” about climate change, currying favor with environmentalists and progressive advocacy groups who pressured the company to leave ALEC — a free market forum for state lawmakers and private sector representatives to discuss model policies for potential state laws.
The week of the U.N. Climate Summit, Schmidt was explaining to NPR’s Diane Rehm why the company didn’t plan to renew its membership with ALEC, yet his remarks were hardly out of the blue.
As far back as September 2008, when Schmidt was Google’s CEO, he was openly declaring his green energy ambitions as part of a plan to wean the U.S. off foreign oil and transition the nation to green energy within 20 years.
A month later and only days before the stock market crash that would trigger the Great Recession, the company’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, announced in a blog post it invested $45 million in green energy startups, calling for federal help to “unleash massive private investment in clean energy.”
“We must dramatically increase federal R&D and enact measures supporting the rapid deployment and scaling of clean technologies such as long-term tax support and a national renewable energy standard,” said Dan Reicher, then-director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, and Jeffery Greenblatt, then-Climate and Energy Technology Manager, for Google.org.
“Tax credits for wind and solar have lapsed several times in the last 20 years, starving these nascent industries of the capital they need to truly enter the mainstream,” they wrote.
Following the stock market crash, the federal government under the Obama administration began issuing grants to a number of now-failed green energy projects affiliated with campaign donors as part of its plan to stimulate economic growth.
Reicher and Greenblatt, who were critical in shaping Google’s green energy policy, left the company in 2010 and 2009, respectively.
According to a November 2013 piece by HillHeat.com, a progressive climate science news site, Google’s policies on green energy shifted to the right after the hiring of former three-time New York Republican Rep. Susan Molinari to head the company’s D.C. policy shop in 2012.
To Beltway-insiders, Molinari’s own resume as an insider offered Google a chance to build better relationships with conservative lawmakers and politicos who wrote off the company as an outsider and an aggressive champion for progressive policies.
But the company has been anything but inactive on the green energy front during Molinari’s tenure. The company itself reports it has made agreements to fund $1.5 billion in renewable energy projects.
Forbes, for example, recently reported Google invested $145 million into its 17th renewable energy project — SunEdison’s Regulus solar farm, which sits atop an old oil and gas field.
Following Schmidt’s interview with Rehm, the Wall Street Journal called out the “mercenary motives” behind his remarks, stating, “The real charlatans are businesses like Google that use climate change as a pretext for corporate welfare.”
In addition to the millions Google has poured into various wind power projects in California and Texas, the Journal highlights that “nearly all” of Google’s renewable energy investments are in states with renewable energy mandates, “which create opportunities for politically mediated profit-making.”
“The company is making decisions around where they locate their business in the country based on things that benefit the company, and they’re not necessarily in line with some of the things that (Schmidt) is pontificating on at the 30,000-foot or 50,000-foot level,” said Linda B. Nelson, ALEC CEO in an interview with Watchdog.org.
Google’s renewable energy investments are also targets for environmentalists, such as the Ivanpah system, a California solar plant the Journal calls a bird-killer.
“Dozens of federally protected desert tortoises have been displaced or killed. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that Ivanpah’s “power towers”— which burn natural gas—incinerate about 28,000 birds annually,” said the Journal.
“The death toll is disputed by others, but Google has made taxpayers complicit in its avian-cide.
“The $2.2 billion bird fryer was funded with a $1.6 billion federal loan, which Google and its business partners plan to repay by applying for a federal grant.”
Despite Google’s green energy ambitions, five out of six of the company’s existing data centers are based in states with the lowest industrial energy prices in the nation.
Bill Meierling, ALEC spokesman, told Watchdog.org Google was “not really putting their money where their mouth is.”
“Eric Schmidt is talking about their commitment to renewable portfolio standards and their commitment to renewable energy, but they’ve placed all six of their data centers in states where the cost of commercial retail electricity is lower than the national average, and that’s because these states are using traditional fossil fuel plants,” said Meierling.
Google’s data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa is powered by a coal plant owned by a company the Sierra Club threatened to sue in 2013 for violating state environmental regulations and the federal Clean Air Act.
Meierling said Google’s Council Bluff’s data center benefited from the reliability and cost of the energy supply to better serve their users.
Data centers are notorious consumers and wasters of energy, as well, as revealed by a 2012 New York Times investigation, although Google states on its company site it runs its data centers with “50 (percent) less energy than a typical data center.”
“They might be thinking about renewable energy for the future, but in D.C. terms, their Hill-style and their home-style are very different,” said Meierling.
Google did not respond to Watchdog.org’s request for comment.
Disclosure: North Dakota Republican State Rep. Blair Thoreson, ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force public chair, sits on the board of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. Watchdog.org is a project of the Franklin Center.
Contact Josh Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson