Covid-19 May Speed Up Low-Carbon Shift, Google Says


August 16th, 2020 by  

In a Q& A with BloombergNEF, Google’s Jeff Hamel, Director of Industry Partnerships at Google, shared his thoughts on how the coronavirus may speed up the low-carbon shift. The clean energy industry, along with essentially all other industries, felt the 1-2-3 punches of the Covid-19 pandemic that is still raging in the US. Hamel thinks that, while the clean energy industry is hurting in the short term, it isn’t being hit as hard as others. In fact, he believes we may see a boom similar to the aftereffect of the 2008 recession coming out of this.

“The opportunity is there to direct policy and set strategy that would accelerate the trajectory we’re on now. The whole renewable scenario has been moved up as a result of the efforts of the past couple of years,” Hamel said. In 2008, there was a clean energy funding boom in which companies such as Opower got started. Hamel shared that a lot of that stimulus effort could be credited to the change we’ve seen within the past 10 years in the energy industry.

Working with Distributed Energy, but Utilities Too

Many have wondered over the years if large companies like Google, which have set up their own giant energy divisions, would move away from even connecting to utilities. While Google is working with Distributed Energy Resource Management (DERM) systems, it isn’t moving away from utilities. Hamel noted that they are still a “key part of the equation.” Google is moving to a model that will be more efficient for both Google and the utilities involved.

Smart Homes

“When smart thermostats were being introduced, the utilities were wanting to try demonstration programs to ensure that it worked with their systems,” Hamel said.

Hamel explained that utilities want to grow these programs. And as more technologies are being integrated with the home — EV charging, for example — he thinks demand response systems using smart tech will get more scalable and useful.

The most famous smart thermostat is the Nest thermostat. Google bought Nest Labs in 2011, and today Nest is a major focus in Google’s push toward cleaner and more efficient energy. Hamel was head of industry partnerships for Google’s Nest program from 2015–2018.

“If you’re a utility operator who’s hoping to defer investment on a power plant or a substation or a line upgrade and you’re able to aggregate the load in a reliable way, you want to do it in a way that’s going to accommodate not only today’s technology but also tomorrow’s technology,” he said.

“We spend time thinking about the equitability piece of this equation, making sure people at all income levels are able to obtain the technology that lets them reduce their energy use and save money. We have a program called the Power Project that launched about two years ago — it’s a multiyear effort to get over a million Next thermostats into low- and moderate-income homes. We’re working with partners in electric and gas utilities to do that, through programs like LIHEAP (the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program). We’re really trying to democratize efficiency.”

Renewable Energy Purchasing

Google is also making sure that it has enough renewable energy supply to offset all of its demand across the company.

Google, which has been one of the largest buyers of purchase power agreements globally, plans to continue this and ensure that its demand is offset at the right times with the best sources. As for its hourly carbon offset plan, Google hopes to take this to the next level and be smarter about matching its supply with demand on a “semi-near-time basis from a clean energy perspective.”

Covid-19, Transformation

The effects of the pandemic on the energy industry — dirty energy businesses as well as clean energy ones — are notable. Hamel said that the clean energy industry has seen a significant downturn. Google works with several energy efficiency companies as well as utilities which have taken a huge hit. Several programs rely on professionals entering personal residences, and with the pandemic, this isn’t possible for now. Google has used this as an opportunity to train people while they are not able to do this.

There have been some other good opportunities certain players have taken advantage of as well. Some utilities have focused on e-commerce and providing drop-ship type of solutions to consumers. They are even able to give them DIY technology such as thermostats. “That’s how the Consumers Energy program in Michigan is performing. They’ve leaned into a digital-first e-commerce experience and are doing very well.”

One big question mark that Hamel noted is around commercial load. Utilities are trying to diversify their load control in favor of flexibility. So, they’ve been doubling down — sometimes tripling down — and aggregating residential load since the commercial load has been reduced. This increased aggregation can have lasting effects for improving grid flexibility. 


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