Big-Tech as Eco-Warriors

Facebook, unbidden as usual, tells me that my personal screentime was down 9% last week. Either I’m abnormal, or a lot more people are joining Facebook, since the company’s current sustainability report shows that their electricity consumption (presumably a proxy for user screentime) was up 39% from the year prior. Facebook is far from alone in this—and the increased demand for electricity in the technology sector has created something of a “stampede for clean energy,” according to Michael Terrell, director of energy at Google.

What’s this stampede all about? Fundamentally (cynically, perhaps), it’s about marketing. Tech companies, especially big, profitable, sexy ones like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, are in an elbows-flying sprint to offset their “dirty” energy consumption with “green” power generated from “renewables.”  That’s a lot of scare-quotes, and for good reason: an awful lot of what is understood about energy these days is dubious at best, contradictory at worst.

As Vivek Ramaswamy has mused, the rush to purchase renewable energy may in fact be more a case of offshoring the moral implications of staggering corporate profits than any self-substantiating concerns over energy use per se. After all, Big Tech’s energy demands, growing as they are, still represent only about a 1% sliver of the overall electronic pie. As part of a Woke Capitalism portfolio, however, advertising one’s bona fides in the environmental sector (diversified, of course, with proper signaling on race, gender, and sexual preference) delivers significant social dividends, year over year. Ramaswamy argues that the post-2008 anti-capitalist rumblings of the left were quelled surprisingly easily with a token degree of bowing and scraping: He says, “a bunch of big banks got together with a bunch of millennials, birthed woke capitalism, and then put Occupy Wall Street up for adoption.” Threat averted, “big business [now] makes money by critiquing itself.”

“Renewables” is one such bow and scrape in deference to the Eco-Harpies. Google broadcasts, with something of a flourish, that they are “thrilled to have matched [our] annual electricity consumption with renewable energy for four years running…”  They are even raising the bar: “…we’re now building on our progress to target an even larger ambition: by 2030, Google aims to run on entirely 24/7 carbon-free energy, everywhere we operate.”  To their credit, this “24/7” detail represents especial attention paid not only to raw terawatt consumption metrics, but to the timing of the energy demand: Google is saying it’s not enough for them to buy an annual year’s-worth of offsets when in fact their energy demands may be contributing to peaks in otherwise “dirty” energy use. Good for them for catching that, and a hat-tip for the conscientious effort.

This “carbon-free energy” bit, however…oy, vey. It is of course ludicrous to imply that the over 12.2 terawatt/hours Google consumes annually (approximately the same demand as 1.2 million American homes) magically appears in its transmission lines, free of any dirty carbon footprints. Even if it is purchased directly from “renewable” energy production sites (solar, wind, etc.) the electricity produced is anything but “carbon-free.” Michael Moore’s documentary on “green” energy highlights the astonishing degree to which all-that-glitters-is-not-green, and even a cursory glance at the full life-cycle costs of “green” energy (mining, fabrication, construction, operations, and disposal) shows that you can’t get something for nothing. If one truly believes that net carbon emissions are an imminent existential threat (Steven Koonin’s latest assessment of climate science may help dissuade you), then Big Tech’s efforts at reducing its footprint may be a step in the right direction. But let’s not get carried away with the self-gratifying backslapping…

For one thing, there are many technologies that are far more efficient than the wind and solar farms gracing the covers of Big Tech sustainability reports. Hydroelectric, nuclear, and simple/combined cycle gas plants, have been shown to be significantly more efficient, both in absolute costs per kilowatt-hour and in overall emissions reductions (even left-leaning economists will recognize no contradiction here!). New dams and gas-burning power plants, however, don’t generally come to mind with the word “renewable,” even though we supposedly all agree that carbon emissions are the reason for shifting our energy production. A Brookings Institute report puts it neatly: “renewable incentives that are biased in favor of wind and solar and biased against large-scale hydro, nuclear and gas combined cycle are a very expensive and inefficient way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

Yet, despite the fact that this is widely known in the energy/policy world, it’s difficult to imagine Amazon making its “largest corporate procurement announcement” in green energy and plastering its logo on the side of a sparkling new nuclear cooling tower. Despite its stated “commitment to a clean and prosperous energy future,” Amazon reveals by its actions that it is just highly tuned to the optics. It is in a green-tech measuring contest: the bigger the headline, the greater the customer goodwill. And it makes a fair bit of sense: appeasing the Jacobins is cheap insurance against the guillotine.

Green New Deal absurdities aside, climate activism as a social movement is pivoting away from its radical yen to grab the tiller of state—away from engaging in a campaign to force citizens into climate compliance into one in which companies are offering to join a quasi-volitional contractual arrangement where doing the “right thing” is rewarded by market share.

For all that, there is justifiable cause for optimism. After all, this entire play, vacuous in some respects as it might be, is entirely voluntary. Our collective addiction to the Big Tech products (I’ve used Google for every hyperlink, checked Facebook twice, and received an Amazon package in the course of writing this article) represents a practical consumer’s desire for the ease, simplicity, and fun they provide. All to the good. So, cynicism aside, isn’t Big Tech’s bid to do the green thing at least a step in the right direction?  Perhaps. In the spirit of charity, I choose to assume that the proponents of renewable offsets genuinely mean well and are doing their level best to make the world a better place. They are smart, competent, and motivated. Not inconsequentially, they have some of the world’s most enviable cash reserves. I’d be willing to lease them a few hundred acres of desert ranchland if they were foolhardy enough to present an offer. And, of course, there are some decent arguments in favor of the renewable movement in general. At a personal level, for instance, our home ranch headquarters has been off-the-grid solar since day one, and my parents have never had an air-conditioned home in their life. Frankly, I sort of hope for their sake that they can get some used solar panels and decent batteries amidst all this fallout.

But the most interesting aspect of all this is something Urvi Parekh, director of renewable energy at Facebook, said regarding the scramble: “It’s showing that voluntary targets are really moving the market.” This, from a classical liberal perspective, is indeed worth noting. The cumulative hand-wringing about climate change, exaggerated or misplaced though it may be, is morphing in important ways. Green New Deal absurdities aside, climate activism as a social movement is pivoting away from its radical yen to grab the tiller of state—away from engaging in a campaign to force citizens into climate compliance into one in which companies are offering to join a quasi-volitional contractual arrangement where doing the “right thing” is rewarded by market share. As consumers, we can engage more quickly and transparently with our companies than we can as citizens trying to influence a moribund and bureaucratic state.

This may be cold comfort, perhaps, for the losers in this tempestuous teapot (fracking drillers, nuclear engineers, oil pipeline welders), especially where and when governments collude with Big Tech in a mercantilist ploy to artificially shape consumer choices.  On that front we should beware. But at some level, this “renewable” frenzy all begins to feel a bit like a polite face-saving maneuver, a “Peace with Honor” kind of moment. As climate alarmism continues to not gain the traction that its shrieking promoters so fervently desire, a generalized (calmer) collective wisdom seems ascendant: something along the lines of  “maybe we should tone it down, live a little less fecklessly, consume a bit more consciously, and steward this Good Earth as best we can.”  The pivot of consumers to (apparently) reward companies for their greenwashing, artifice aside, might not be the worst thing.

Now, would it be better if, instead of all the posturing, more sensible and pragmatic actions tied directly to better-understood and more pressing environmental crises got all the headlines? Yes. It would be great, for instance, to see wasteful curbside recycling programs—ahem—curbed in order to reduce the cumulative ocean pollution to which they contribute.  It would be nice to see companies support fourth-generation pebble-bed reactors with as much vim as new solar farms. And so on. But if getting collectively giddy about Big Tech’s big play in renewables is what it takes to keep the eco-warriors off the anti-capitalist warpath, then so be it. In this world of constant tradeoffs, I’ll take green posturing over jackboots.