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

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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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