12/13/2016 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2017

Why Google's Greenwashing Hurts Society, And How To Fix The Problem

Google operates in the online world but burns a lot of real world energy - the equivalent of two huge coal plants that could supply power for 280,000 people, according to a recent New York Times story. The Times also reported that Google now plans to obtain all of its energy from renewable sources by 2017.

Is this the truth - or a new and particularly malignant form of greenwashing?

Google claims on its website that "building a carbon-free electrical grid is an urgent global priority." To achieve its green energy goals, it purchases renewable energy indirectly. The actual power from the wind farms that Google contracts with is unlikely to ever reach Google's data centers.

Google claims that because electricity is "fungible," these contracts are enough for it to claim it is carbon neutral. The only requirement seems to be that the contracts have to be with renewable developers that are "on the same grids."

Unfortunately, that's just not how it works.

Essentially, Google is contracting for green energy from places that can never reach its data centers. If it were as simple as Google claims, it would be easy to build a renewable power sector. New York City could execute a massive number of contracts with wind farms in upstate New York because they are on the "same grid." Or the city of Chicago could contract with renewable developers in North Carolina because Illinois and parts of North Carolina are "on the same grid" (a regional grid that connects the two states and many others.)

The reality is far more complex - so much so Google appears to be taking a false road to carbon neutrality.

To understand why, consider the New York City example. If it contracted with wind farms on the same grid (basically, the state of New York), and made no effort to get that power delivered to the city, it would basically swamp the upstate region with much more renewable energy than that area could ever use, while the City would be left to rely on the same dirty old power plants that have been supplying its power for decades.

We have to make a distinction between renewable energy at the gate of the power project and renewable energy delivered to New York City. An upstate wind farm can certainly generate renewable electricity - but because New York's electric grid was built for dirty power, new renewable energy simply cannot get to the City. Transmission lines have to be built. That costs money, which means investment is needed by both the public and private sectors.

Businesses like Google can help cities like New York - and society at large - by adding "renewable energy delivered" (let's call it RED) to their clean energy strategies. When Google has operations and data centers in urban areas, they should commit to RED. Even more important - Google and others should help pay for the essential renewable infrastructure that will deliver power to population centers. This would be far more meaningful than facilitating yet another wind farm in Utah or New Mexico that doesn't really help anyone very much.

Northeast and West Coast states, to their credit, remain steadfast in their commitment to combating climate change by developing renewable power sources. It's time for corporations like Google to stop greenwashing and instead invest in a cleaner grid in ways that will deliver green power where it's actually needed and consumed.

This is an ideal private sector solution to a major societal challenge - and a way for everyone's favorite search engine to be an engine for positive change.