Google’s Clean Energy Investments in Africa

In the years ahead, Africa will rely increasingly upon renewable energy solutions to power the Internet and technology sector’s ceaseless appetite for electricity. The rapid growth of the cloud and rise of the “Internet of Things” has reworked both the way we conduct business and lead our everyday lives. In order to compete in a carbon-constrained future, Internet companies must lead the way towards greening both our online and offline worlds.

One company has recognized the immediate need to begin accomplishing these objectives. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page seem genuinely interested in technologies that curb the emission of greenhouse gases linked to global climate change. Environmental Protection Agency figures show the company as getting well over 800 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) annually from renewable sources, placing them fifth on the list of the top 100 companies in that regard.

Secondly, without electricity people do not have Internet connectivity and they cannot view the online ads that supply Google with 90 percent of its revenue. Google also profits from the sale of software and devices used to navigate the Internet, all of which use electricity.

The Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya represents Google’s latest investment in clean energy. Their strategy involves purchasing a 12.5 percent stake in the project from Vestas Wind Systems after the wind farm starts generating power in 2017. Credible sources estimate that the electricity produced by the Turkana project will supply around 15 percent of what Kenya’s current energy grid produces. Kenya lags behind many countries in terms of the percentage of the population with access to electricity and also relies heavily on coal and diesel generated electricity, a system that conflicts with world-wide efforts to transition to renewable energy sources.

Kenya benefits by saving some of the $113 million it spends annually on importing fuel for electricity while reducing its dependence on fossil fuels and hydro power. The location of the wind farm is ideal for wind-generated electricity. Vestas projects efficiency levels almost double that of typical wind installations thanks to winds that blow consistently and with high velocity.

The local environment of Kenya and the world’s atmosphere also benefit. A study published by the World Nuclear Association demonstrates that over the typical life cycle of a power plant, facilities relying on coal and other fossil fuels, including clean natural gas, produce an average of 798 tons of greenhouse gases. For the equivalent life cycle of a plant producing electricity from wind, greenhouse gas emissions are only 26 tons. A fossil fuel power plant produces greenhouse gases throughout its life cycle, but a wind power plant does so only during construction and decommissioning.

Google also participates in another large-scale renewable energy project in Africa. The Jasper Power Project in South Africa will generate 96 megawatts of solar-generated electricity, enough to supply the needs of 30,000 homes. The Jasper and Turkana projects combined with Google’s approximately 20 other investments in renewable energy represent a financial commitment of between one and two billion dollars.

The investments in electricity infrastructure in Africa make sense for Google on a number of levels. Without electricity in some form, there is no Internet access. In the highly developed countries of North America and Europe, growth for Google has slowed as saturation levels of households with Internet access in 2015 averages close to 70 percent. Africa offers phenomenal growth opportunities from the perspective of a large population where Internet access is limited to less than 11 percent out of a population exceeding one billion. Their ambitious Loon project has yet to go commercial, but the company has carried the idea even further by sponsoring Project Link to build over 700 miles of fiber-optic networks in Africa, enabling the deployment of fast, reliable broadband service to the continent.

As the world begins to embrace further steps to reduce the impact of global climate change, Google has positioned itself as a leader in the endeavor. It would appear that the monetary investments in solar and wind generating projects will supply the company with discernible returns-on-investment. Less immediately tangible societal benefits represent a win-win situation for the company, its investors and its customers.