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Google powers a data center directly with wind for the first time

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While Google (s GOOG) has been an investor in, and advocate for, clean energy for years, on Wednesday the company announced that for the first time it will buy clean energy from a utility to directly power one of its data centers in Oklahoma. Google has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into solar and wind projects throughout the U.S., but before this had yet to purchase clean power to directly run one of its data centers.

This move, to have clean energy directly power a data center, has always been in the plans. Google’s former green energy czar Bill Weihl (now at Facebook) told me years ago that the ultimate end game was for Google to procure clean energy to use for its data centers. But the search engine giant needed to find the right area, the right utility partner and a new(ish) data center project.

That sweet spot was a data center built in Mayes County, Oklahoma in 2011. Earlier this year Google started working with utility Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) to buy 48 MW of wind energy from the Canadian Hills Wind Project in Oklahoma. Google says it paid a premium (higher than the basic cheap power it could get elsewhere) to purchase the wind power from the project. As Greenpeace points out, half of Oklahoma’s power grid is run on coal.

Google says the GRDA approached it about buying power from the wind project in early 2012 to sell to Google. The wind project is GRDA’s first clean power project. We need more utilities like this that are willing to work with big customers that want to buy clean power. Most power customers, other than some of the leading Internet companies, aren’t aggressively looking for clean power and willing to pay a premium for it.

Most of the massive Internet companies are building their data centers in locations where power is cheap and reliable. And usually that means fossil fuel power — coal or natural gas — and sometimes means hydro power. The exception is areas like Iceland, which have geothermal and hydro in spades, so can provide cheap, reliable clean power. The Chief Technology Officer of Verne Global, Tate Cantrell, will be speaking at our Structure Europe event next month.

This is one of the first times I’ve heard of a data center operator buying a substantial amount of clean power from a utility project for a premium. So kudos to Google for that.

Greenpeace released a statement about Google’s clean power data center news:

Google’s announcement today shows what the most forward-­?thinking, successful companies can accomplish when they are serious about powering their operations with clean energy.

Hopefully this is just the first of such announcements from Google.

Google fundamentally believes that it should work with utilities to buy clean power. In contrast other Internet companies like Apple are opting to build their own clean power. Apple is building a massive solar panel farm (through developer SunPower), and a large biogas-powered fuel cell farm (from Bloom Energy), next to its data center in Maiden, North Carolina. Auction site eBay is also building a huge fuel cell farm at one of its data centers.

The leading Internet companies are just starting to dabble in experimenting with clean power. The vast majority are still opting for low cost, reliable power, which usually means going where the grid is powered by fossil fuels. Power and data centers is still controversial — check out the New York Times recent story on that, as well as my opinion on that story. Also read my feature story on the controversial world of clean power and data centers.

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