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Google consumes as much electricity as San Francisco

Overpowering energy use leads net giant to swear off fossil fuels

A photograph of San Francisco at night with the beacon lit on top of the Transamerica Pyramid. Brian Solls

Google promised this week to take advantage of bargain prices on renewable energy and run on nothing but green power in 2017.

A head-turning footnote in that story is the repeated claim that, between all of its facilities worldwide, Google alone consumes almost as much energy annually as all of San Francisco.

In fact, Google has something of a history of provoking larger-than-life headlines about energy consumption. In 2015, Wired wrote that Google was buying enough renewable energy to power “two San Franciscos.”

In 2009, the blog for GreenTech Media ran a headline saying that one Google data center consumed as much energy as the island of Manhattan—although that turned out to be a story about how energy efficient computers actually prevented that much consumption.

This time, though, it seems that the wattage is legit. According to the California Energy Commission, San Francisco county consumed about 5.8 terawatts in 2015 (a remarkably consistent annual figure over the last five or six years).

In a white paper published this week, Google claims to consume 5.7 terawatt hours annually. That’s more than all of San Francisco most years prior to 2009, and a bit more than half as much as Alameda county and a third as much as Santa Clara County today.

For perspective, 5.7 terawatts is equal to about 5.7 billion kilowatts, or 5,700 gigawatts. Enough to power Doc Brown’s time-traveling Delorean for more than 4,700 trips.

Google uses most of the energy in its data centers, which carry out the operations of its search engine.

San Francisco, on the other hand, consumes about 1,755 kilowatt hours per person every year. Much of it, presumably, to access Google.