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How Google is using big data to protect the environment

Google’s sustainability officer Kate Brandt outlines the company’s wide-range interest in sustainable fishing, green buildings and renewable energy

Kate Brandt speaking at the 2016 SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas. Photograph: Diego Donamaria

For many people, Google is simply the gateway to a vast archive of facts and memories. For those who pay closer attention to its business dealings, the company also invests billions to find new ways to use the power of computers: it’s developing robots, virtual reality gear and self-driving cars. Remember all the hubbub about Google Glass?

Google has been using the same approach in sustainability – spreading its wealth in a variety of projects to cut its waste and carbon footprint, initiatives which may one day generate profits. During the SXSW Eco conference this week, I caught up with Google’s sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, to find out more. Brandt joined the company in July last year after serving as the nation’s chief sustainability officer in the Obama administration.

During her keynote at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Brandt hit all the key environmental initiatives that Google had undertaken over the past decade – at least those that have been announced. Some of the projects involve collecting and analyzing data that enable Google and other businesses to use more sustainable materials, reduce their environmental impact and cut emissions.

“When we think about the Third Industrial Revolution and the role Google played in it, we also think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution where this digital backbone could transform our relationship to the material world. We would like to be a player,” she said during her keynote. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the buzzterm for describing the deepening role that technology plays in our lives.

Understandably, Google is big on reducing energy use at its data centers. Another often-cited effort: the company is a big wind and solar energy investor, having signed 2.5 gigawatts worth of contracts around the world and, additionally, committed to investing $2.5bn in renewable energy, including owning stakes in power plants. That makes the company the largest corporate renewable energy buyer if you don’t count utilities, Brandt said.

Brandt wouldn’t tell me whether the company plans to put money into energy storage, which is seen as a complementary, if not must-have, technology for renewable energy in overtaking fossil fuels. Energy storage, such as batteries, makes it possible to use renewable energy at a time when solar or wind farms can’t produce electricity. The energy storage market is fairly new, with lots of experiments with a variety of technologies and ways to reduce costs.

Brandt said one of the surprising things she learned when she first arrived at Google was the company’s project to create a database of the composition and environmental impact of building materials, something she didn’t know about before. The company had been using the database, called Portico, for its own construction projects, but released a web app last week to make the data more publicly available.

Brandt isn’t the first hire at Google to work on sustainability. The tech giant has a decentralized approach: there have been teams embedded in different business units that look at ways to reduce energy use, emissions and waste and to boost productivity and revenues. For instance, there’s a team called Geo for Good that investigates the use of maps, data and machine learning to solve environmental problems, such as creating databases and software to monitor the health of tropical forests around the world or track illegal fishing. There’s also a team that works on serving sustainably grown food within the company.

But Brandt appears to have been hired to come up with big picture strategies and make more efficient use of all these disparate sustainability initiatives. That means a lot of cajoling and negotiations with people who don’t necessarily have to answer to her. This is where her experience working as the country’s chief sustainability officer comes in handy, she said.

“My current role [is to work] across a lot of different teams. These challenges are so big that it requires partnership,” she told me.

What Google does internally is fascinating. At a sustainability conference in June, I attended a panel of three Google employees who recounted their effort to promote reusable menstrual cups, which help to reduce the amount of pads and tampons that end up in landfills. The discussion provided an interesting look into the skepticism and struggle the three women faced in persuading their fellow Googlers to try something new. And, of course, data played a big role: numbers to show the growing public interest in menstrual cups and the large expenses that Google spends on pads and tampons.

They ran a pilot project at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View that saw all 250 cups being used in half of the expected time frame and received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback. So the Googlers began looking to do another pilot at a different Google office.

I also learned that reducing meat consumption is a touchy subject at Google, where engineers are pampered and cloistered to maximize their productivity. “When we did ‘Meatless Monday’, there was a group that set up a barbecue just outside of the café,” said one of the Google employees at the June conference.

So what does Brandt do personally to set a good example?

“I take our shuttle to work,” she said, before switching to “we” and her talking points from her keynote. “We are focused on composting, recycling and reusing our water bottles,” she said, pointing to a water bottle on the table in front of her. “We have a bin that’s green for composting, blue for recycling and a little bit of [space] hanging off to the side that’s for landfill waste.”

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Analytikus. Staff authors are listed

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