What It Really Means When Google and Apple Say They Run on 100% Renewable Energy

The role of RECs, the concept of “additionality”, and their impact on the earth

Sarvesh Mathi
Published in
8 min readApr 8, 2020


Solar panels roofs in Apple’s Cupertino Headquarters. Photo: Apple

AApple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — five companies that arguably make up “big tech” — say they are either already powered by 100% renewable energy or are close to getting there.

Together, these companies own and operate more than a hundred data centers (each the size of multiple football fields), close to a thousand offices, and countless other buildings, making them some of the most power-hungry companies in the world. Given this, running on 100% renewable energy is a significant achievement.

But there are plenty of critics who argue that these claims are misleading. Some say carbon offsets might do more to assuage guilt than they do to help the environment. To understand where these arguments come from, let’s start with the basics.

What is renewable energy?

Energy that is produced using natural resources like sunlight, wind, water, plants, geothermal heat, and biomass is classified as renewable or green energy.

Green power based on its relative environmental benefits. Image: EPA

But electricity infrastructure is not typically designed in a way that makes it possible to draw only “green energy” from the grid.

Once a solar or wind farm produces electricity, it is not directly sent to consumers, but rather sent to the main grid, where it mixes with electricity produced from other sources to form an “electricity pool.” This renders the green energy supplied to our buildings essentially indistinguishable from other sources of electricity.

Given that over 80% of U.S. energy demand is met by fossil fuels, it’s highly likely that the buildings of many of the companies that claim to use 100% renewable energy are, in fact, drawing from a grid that supplies energy produced by fossil fuels. After all, data centers are running 24/7 while the availability of wind and solar energy is intermittent.