Skip to main content

(Tech stock columnist Jon D. Markman publishes Strategic Advantage, a lively guide to investing in the digital transformation of business and society. Click here for a trial.)

In addition to launching products, modern chief executives must navigate the politics of corporate responsibility while attracting professional investors.

Sundar Pichai, the chieftain at Alphabet (GOOGL), stepped Tuesday onto a makeshift stage at the Google campus. As the host of the I/O developer conference he could have talked about code. Instead, Pichai talked sustainability in the most Google way possible.

Longer-term investors should consider buying the stock.

Google doesn’t seem like a green business. The company’s bread and butter is a network of 21 resource-hungry data centers located all over the globe, and linked by thousands of miles of fiber optic cable. These vast monoliths, filled with countless computer servers and switches power billions of daily web searches, digital ads and cloud services.

A new facility is Arizona consumes 1 million gallons of water every day simply to keep all of the machines cool, according to a report last April from Time. Power consumption is a whole other story.

A report published Feb. 2020 in Science revealed that data centers use fully 1% of all of the world’s electric power. That’s a lot. The good news is modern data centers are becoming far more efficient as internet-savvy companies find ingenious ways to shrink consumption.

Alphabet has gone one step further.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company became in 2007 the first major corporation to reach carbon neutrality. That’s a fancy way for saying the search giant offset all of its use of carbon-based power with renewable energy or credits. Pichai said Tuesday that by 2017 the largest and newest data centers at Google got 90% of their power from renewable sources. And he committed that by 2030 all facilities will run 24/7 on clean renewable power.

It’s a big ask. Those centers are scattered all over the globe by design. Some locations do not get much sunlight. That puts the kibosh on solar. Other are near pockets of dense population, making wind farms impossible.

Pichai noted that a new data center in Denmark got five new solar farms to augment existing wind-powered energy from the Danish grid.

So Google is doing what it does best. Company engineers are building software systems to rejigger computer processing to run more efficiently, and on schedules that make it easier to work around some of the limitations of clean energy.

It’s called the Carbon-Intelligent Computing Platform. And it is an industry first.

The idea is to use artificial intelligence to shift processing within the entire Google network to places where renewable energy is most plentiful at the time.

This same Google knowhow is making its new campus more sustainable. The roof will be constructed from Dragonscale solar skin, with 90,000 silver solar panels capable of generating nearly 7 megawatts. The building will also feature the largest geothermal pile system in North America. It will heat the structure during the winter months while cooling it in the summer.

This will be an important experiment for Alphabet. The great competitive advantage large tech companies hold is the ability to test really big ideas internally. Using software to shift power-hungry computer processing across the network geographically is a saleable service. Testing the process across thousands of Google workloads should engineers iron out the wrinkles.

Yet that is not the reason longer-term investors should consider buying Alphabet shares. The rationale is sustainability.

So-called ESG investing is a $30 trillion market segment that is expected to reach $53 trillion by 2025. Investors are clearly seeking corporations that are conscious of the environment, socially active causes and exercise responsible corporate governance. Alphabet is the leader in segment, making it a must own for institutional money managers.

Shares trade at only 19.2x forward earnings and 1.5x sales. These are extremely reasonable metrics given the scale of Pichai’s ambitions and the company’s place within the ESG ecosystem.