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Google's SC data center ranks worst in US for renewable energy use

Google's data-processing hub in Berkeley County uses more energy from gas- and coal-fired power plants than its other comparable U.S. sites, a report from the company shows. 

In a clean energy commitment released Monday, the search engine and online advertising giant broke down how much carbon-free power each of its data centers in the world consumes.

Nineteen percent of the energy the site near Goose Creek and Moncks Corner uses comes from carbon-free sources, the smallest percentage among Google's 11 U.S. sites. 

The low ranking reflects a slower transition to renewable energy in the Southeast rather than the company's choice of power sources. The site off U.S. Highway 52 is required by law to buy from Berkeley Electric Cooperative, which is supplied by Santee Cooper.

Energy use is a top issue for operators of data centers, which are essentially high-tech warehouses for online information that's stored remotely, or "on the cloud." As the amount of data increases, so does the need for more power. 

Google said Monday that it intends "to run on carbon-free energy everywhere, at all times" by 2030. Its plan to reach that goal is based on purchasing more clean power. 

"These trends mean that carbon-based resources are simply no longer necessary to compensate for the variability of renewables, and true round-the-clock clean energy is achievable," it said in the report.

That commitment includes South Carolina, where Google has operated its data center in Mount Holly Commerce Park for more than a decade. 

The company is a partner in a deal announced about a year ago to install a pair of solar fields in Orangeburg County. The arrays will generate a combined 150 megawatts of energy when they come online in 2022. 

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Also Santee Cooper is currently reviewing bids to add up to 500 megawatts of solar capacity, said Mollie Gore, spokeswoman for the Moncks Corner-based utility . 

"We are moving towards a significantly more renewable mix," she said. 

Santee Cooper's energy reform plan calls for it to have 1,000 megawatts of solar capacity by 2024 and "leaner, greener" sources of power. After the state-owned provider closes four coal-fired generating units in Georgetown, in 2022 and 2027, they will be replaced by a "combination of renewable and natural gas," Gore said.

The polar opposite of Google's Lowcountry site is an Oklahoma data center that the company said runs on 96 percent carbon-free energy, partly because the open plains make wind power cheap and plentiful. 

Eddy Moore, energy and climate program director at the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, said the price of renewable energy is dropping quickly. He said much of the state is still powered by outdated plants built decades ago, and that the business case for utilities to switch to cleaner sources is becoming harder to dismiss. 

"Renewable energy is cheaper," he said. "We're clinging to old fossil fuel power plants that can't compete on either price or function."

A bill making its way through the Statehouse would fund a study to investigate energy market reform in South Carolina. The costs of the review would be paid by utilities under the proposed legislation. Google is among the bill's major corporate supporters, Moore said. 

John Tynan, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, applauded Google's clean power pledge, saying other companies in the state are likely to push for similar goals. 

One example is global tire manufacturer Bridgestone, which has a plant in Aiken County. It has vowed to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050

Tynan, whose group lobbies the General Assembly for renewable energy policies, said he wasn't surprised to hear Google's South Carolina data center relies more on fossil fuels than its other locations. 

"We've got a long way to go, but with groups like Google, the solar industry and conservation organizations pushing, I'm confident we can get there," he said.

Andrew Brown of The Post and Courier contributed to this reportReach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

Mary Katherine, who also goes by MK, is a reporter covering health care and technology for The Post and Courier's business desk. She grew up in upstate New York and enjoys playing cards, kayaking and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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