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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.