Mountain View Voice

News - November 25, 2011

Tour reveals Google's efforts to go green

by Daniel DeBolt

Google headquarters is a wealth of environmental friendliness, from plants that clean the air to toxin-free furniture.

In a tour organized by Mountain View Reads Together to go with the environmental book "Eaarth," guide Anthony Ravitz recalled his first day on the job in Google's real estate and workplace services department.

A co-worker had him sniff a sample of carpet. "I don't smell anything," Ravitz said. He was told, emphatically, "That's good!" To Google, that new home smell is a bad one, a sign of the "off-gassing" of chemicals. With an eye toward preventing toxic exposure, Google has been pushing a campaign to reduce the use of chemicals such as formaldehyde, an EPA-designated "probable human carcinogen" found ubiquitously in building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in paint, and PVC in plumbing, which gives off highly toxic dioxin when burned, Ravitz said.

Ravitz pointed to the ceiling in the lobby of Google's Building 43, where sheets of insulation are held up by fasteners instead of glue. Several different types of glue were tested, including Elmer's, but "we couldn't find a glue to make it stick that wasn't high in VOCs," Ravitz said.

Ravitz said Google has been using its buying power to require companies to disclose what's in its furniture and building materials. It's apparently become advocacy work for Google.

"We won't have achieved success until you can go to the Home Depot or Ikea and know what's in those products you are buying," Ravitz said.

Google has gone as far as turning the quest for clean air into art. In the lobby of the former Alza Pharmaceuticals headquarters at Charleston Road and Amphitheatre Parkway, the two-story lobby walls are covered with plants hanging in special pouches, watered by a mist that trickles down into a decorative basin of pebbles. Ravitz said microbes in the plant roots clean the air for the building's HVAC system, while the water provides some cooling as well.

The focus on employee health that can be attributed to co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Ravitz said. Googlers get free massages and medical care on site, and nearly every outdoor recreation activity you can imagine is available. Google's newest facility, called the Google Athletic Recreation Field, or G.A.R.field, for short, includes a soccer field, basketball courts, bocce ball, outdoor exercise equipment, and solar panels so it uses "net-zero energy," Ravitz said.

Net-zero energy use is of interest for Google for other facilities as well. Plans submitted to the city several years ago for a new headquarters building on the vacant lot at Shoreline Boulevard and Charleston Road impressed local architects and planners, as it should have little or no impact on the environment. Google is expected to submit new plans very soon for the project, which was put on hold.

A zero waste future?

Google is also looking at reducing the environmental impacts of garbage to zero. "Zero waste is definitely our goal," Ravitz said. To that end Google has been composting its food waste for three years. All of the dishes used in Google's cafes are "washables" and workers are encouraged to take the dishes with them if they want to take lunch back to their desks. (To-go containers are made of recyclable materials.)

Googlers are even discouraged from drinking bottled water, as it is seen as an unnecessary waste of plastic. Instead, Ravitz said workers are encouraged to use the plastic bottles from juice drinks found in vending machines around campus as bottles for tap water.

The purple pipe

"A great benefit of being here in Mountain View is the purple pipe," Ravitz said, referring to the large pipe that takes recycled water into the North Bayshore area from Palo Alto's sewage treatment plant. The pipe is purple so no one confuses it with potable water. It can be seen crossing Permanente Creek at Charleston Road, carrying water to Google's landscaping, including at G.A.R.field, where purple boxes can be seen poking from the ground.

Ravitz said toilets are being flushed with recycled water in one of Google's buildings that is used as a sort of testing ground. Google is also experimenting in packing workers into tight spaces. At Google almost no one gets a private office and everyone shares smaller spaces, which Google finds is good for productivity, Ravitz said. Google tends to pack so many employees into a space that it can overwhelm the air conditioning systems in some of Google's buildings, Ravitz said. It's also caused parking problems and the need for parking requirement exceptions from the city.

Biodiesel and batteries

The greenness begins before Google employees even arrive to work if they are among the 4,000 who use Google's biodiesel shuttle system every day to commute in from all over the Bay Area. Google claims the system saves the equivalent in emissions of taking 2,000 cars off the road. But that also factors in the electric vehicles loaned to workers once they arrive: 30 Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts and 10 Toyota Prius Hybrids.

In "a perk for our employees," Ravitz said Google has 250 charging stations so that employees who drive electric vehicles longer distances to work won't be left without a charge to help them get back home.

Solar panels galore

Much of Google's energy is produced on site by solar panels and fuel cells. As of now a solar panel array provides 30 percent of the power used by Google, Ravitz said. Google also receives power from "Bloom Boxes" that use natural gas-powered fuel cells to produce electricity on site. Google also makes use of gas generators that run on the methane gas collected by an underground network of pipelines at Mountain View's former landfill sites at Shoreline Park.

Google's photovoltaic setup is so big that only three companies in the world were willing to bid on the project to install the 9,000 solar panels, Ravitz said.

Googlers get creative

Google employees are encouraged to take it upon themselves to meet the challenges of climate change one day a week with their "20 percent time." Googlers can spend a day a week working on projects or ideas that are interesting to them personally, but also somehow related to Google's mission.

It is this self-starting attitude that probably caused Google employees to build something that shocked Mountain View city employees a few years ago. Google employees had been tired of walking around the creek to get to the former Alza Pharmaceuticals building at Amphitheatre Parkway and Charleston Road, so a zip-line was set up, and for a time Googlers were gliding over the creek hanging from the cable.

The city stepped in and ended the fun once it was discovered, but later approved a foot bridge. It was designed in such a way that is can easily be raised if climate change and rising sea levels causes Permanente Creek to run higher than it does now. Google also added bioswales to each side of the creek, so that run-off would drain into the ground before it hit the creek.

Google's relentless greenness doesn't just stay at the office, either. For a Googler facing a home remodeling project, for instance, "We'll help you make the best choices given what we know," Ravitz said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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