So Google's new energy policies might actually be the real thing then

Greenzo would be proud.

Fans of 30 Rock will remember a character named Greenzo, played by David Schwimmer. Employed as an environmental mascot to promote GE products and TV network NBC’s sustainability credentials (in about that order), Greenzo starts to believe his own hype, culminating in a hilarious appearance on The Today Show, where, reminiscent of Peter Finch’s deranged newsreader in Network, he rants incoherently about "big companies and their two-faced, fat cat executives”.

There’s always been something messianic about Google’s environmental proclamations – give CEO Larry Page half a chance and he’ll proselytise with missionary zeal about the company’s clean energy policies – but, thankfully, all comparisons with Tiny Fey’s satire on corporate avarice end there. In the short term at least, Google is happy to let its finances do the talking.

In December, the company snapped up a $200m equity stake in the Spinning Spur Wind Project in the Texas Panhandle, bringing its total investment in renewable energy projects since 2010 to $1bn. The deal was significant for two reasons.

First, Google committed to it before a last-minute deal was brokered in Congress that extended the US Government’s 2.2¢ per kilowatt hour tax credit for energy produced at wind farms. This amounts to an emphatic vote of confidence in the long-term profitability of the US domestic wind market at a time when experts were predicting very little new capacity in 2013.

Second, by becoming the first investor in an EDF Renewable Energy project that is not a financial institution, Google is sending a clear message to corporate America that multinationals can and should be an important new source of capital for the renewable energy sector.

“From our perspective, these are smart investments and more corporations should be making them,” said Kojo Ako-Asare, Google’s head of corporate finance.

Google has also completed two power purchase agreements (PPAs), long-term commitments (in this case, 20 years) to buy renewable energy directly from developers. The schemes "green" electricity grids in Iowa and Oklahoma where the company has data centres and directly benefit clean energy developer NextEra by offering it certainty on the payments for its power.

In the future, Google clearly believes that the smart money will, by necessity, invest in sustainable energy initiatives that benefit wider society as opposed to the special interests of the few.

Google’s investments also serve a third important purpose, that of reconnecting the $250bn global brand with its progressive northern Californian roots in the wake of a very public tax avoidance scandal in the UK and ongoing debate surrounding privacy and anti-trust issues in the US.

In 2007, Google became the world’s first carbon neutral corporation. Six years on, the company founded in the back of a garage with the unofficial slogan of "Don’t be evil" still appears to be 100 per cent committed – culturally, ideologically and financially – to sustainable business practices at every level. Greenzo would be proud.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner is a freelance energy writer for the NRi Digital network

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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