Google calls on utilities to sell it clean energy for data centers, starting in North Carolina

Google (s GOOG) has invested over a billion dollars into clean power projects, but the search engine giant wants even more ways to access clean power directly for its data centers. That’s why on Friday Google is expected to publicly ask utilities to offer clean power buying programs to large companies like itself that are willing to buy clean power, potentially at a premium. At the same time, Google is also announcing that it’s working with Duke Energy in North Carolina on just such a program.

Duke Energy said it will ask the state commission in North Carolina in the coming months to approve a new plan to sell clean power directly to companies that request it. Utilities sometimes can’t offer these types of programs because of regulatory constraints.

The sign in front of Google's data center

The sign in front of Google’s data center

Google will buy that clean power and use it to expand its data center operations in Lenoir, North Carolina. Google said it will invest another $600 million into building out more computing capacity and the equivalent power to run that capacity in Lenoir. The Lenoir data center, which will involve a total investment of $1.2 billion for Google, runs services like Google search, Gmail, Google+ and YouTube.

As I discovered on my North Carolina mega data center road trip last year (which included a stop at Lenoir), North Carolina is becoming a hub for some of the internet giants’ largest data centers. But the problem has been that the North Carolina grid is mostly coal and nuclear power. As a result, some of the internet companies in the state, like Apple, have been trying to be creative — Apple is building out two massive solar panel farms and a fuel cell farm at its data center in Maiden, North Carolina.

Google's data center in Lenoir

Google’s data center in Lenoir

Google’s Lenior data center was one of the first in the region, and was built a bit before the internet companies started implementing more clean energy for data centers. Last year for my series, I interviewed Gary Demasi, who has led Google’s efforts purchasing clean power for data centers, and he told me that Google has “gotten more proactive and aggressive since then.” That’s why Google might be starting its first efforts for direct clean power in North Carolina.

Google calls the new program “renewable energy tariffs.” Basically, the customer using the power — in this case Google — would pay for the additional cost of clean power, instead of the rate-payers — basic residential and commercial customers — which is how it operates in many states.

Unlike Apple, Google has shown less interest, so far, in building its own clean power plants at the sites of its data centers. However, that could change, as I’ve heard rumors that Google might want to build more of its own clean power projects, as the price of solar panels has gotten so cheap in recent months. However they do it, clearly Google is trying to innovate within the stodgy world of regulation and the power grid.

Check out my series on North Carolina’s mega data centers: