Did Google Just Commit 'Fake News'?
Actually Google did not commit fake news. It just committed public relations which is what one expects companies to do. What has been committed en masse and by many of the world's most revered news outlets is bad journalism.
Here's the story, written with the best journalism we can summon. Sometime over the weekend (the actual, like, hour is hard to pin down) Google Corp. put up a blog post headlined "We're Set to Reach 100% Renewable Energy." Note that even Google at its frothiest did not say, "We are now running our data centers on renewable energy." (That would be quite a feat considering that Google's data farms and offices consume almost as much electricity as the city of San Franciso), it merely made a prediction, i.e. "We're set to reach..."
And what did they mean by "We're set to Reach 100% Renewables"? Further down the page in that nasty little small print that's such a pain to read this was clarified -- somewhat. "To reach this goal," the Google flaks wrote, "we’ll be directly buying enough wind and solar electricity annually to account for every unit of electricity our operations consume."
Woah. This is where it gets complicated because we're entering the dizzying, abstract world of Renewable Energy Credits -- which are now traded a bit the way subprime mortgage contracts were traded back in the day. (And as dangerously says Carl Icahn about a similar type of energy credit.)
"In many places," explained Green Biz, one of the more level-headed outlets, "Google isn’t necessarily using electricity generated by a solar or wind farm, mostly due to the limitations of today’s grid...Rather, the company has entered into a complex string of contracts whereby it is 'buying' the output of an installation — and the related renewable energy credits — that it has helped add to a local grid. The actual power it uses directly at a data center or in an office building may or may not be generated with renewable technologies. In Oklahoma, for example, Google’s projects are structured in this way."
Ok, so that's nice. Whatever's happening here -- and it sure is complicated -- the bottom line seems to be that Google's throwing a whole lot of money at solar and wind companies, and that's good, right?
But it's not the job of news outlets to make news out to be even better than it is, and that is what happened when scores of outlets pubished headlines which sounded like they were seeing into the future. There was Reuters with "Google meets renewable energy goal for global operations." And ABC News with "Google Hits Renewable Energy Goal in Quest to Pare Pollution." And dozens more. The BBC gets the award for worst headline with "Google data centres to be 100% renewable-powered by 2017." (That headline completely misses the point.)
Some of these outlets would probably claim that they are technically right because Google had a "renewables goal" of entering into contracts with enough businesses to "account" for every watt of energy they expend, but the triumphalist tone and the deceptive impression is not called for. The problem is other news outlets with less experienced reporters get their information from "the majors" and if they get it wrong -- like Mashable which ran a lede paragraph reading "Google will power 100 percent of its sprawling data centers and offices with renewable energy starting next year"-- bad information gets spread down the chain a bit like what happened when we played the Telephone Game as kids.
The lesson here? Read carefully.