Over the past decade, hundreds of cities, companies, and states have started buying renewable energy to power their Wi-Fi routers, run their refrigerators, and otherwise keep the lights on. The Empire State Building, for instance, is powered entirely by wind energy; the small city of Burlington, Vermont is run entirely on biomass, wind, solar, and hydropower; and the tech giant Google has been powering its data centers and office buildings with renewables since 2017

Or have they? Plenty of cities and companies are aiming to run on 100 percent clean energy, but it’s not exactly what it sounds like. The truth is that for the past several years, they’ve been trying to cut carbon emissions on what could be termed “Easy” mode. Yes, they buy enough renewable energy to run on clean power all the time, but that energy isn’t necessarily what’s providing the power for their air conditioners and microwaves at any given point in time. 

Now, however, some are pushing governments and companies to switch from “Easy” to “Hard.” They want to deploy something called “24/7 clean energy” — a goal that could drive a whole new phase of clean energy use. And they’ve just convinced the Biden administration to bring it to every single federal building in the United States. 

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” released last month, is chock-full of measures to boost clean energy and help the country fight climate change. But tucked into page 10 of the 25-page plan, between a measure to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells and a pledge to retrofit 1 million homes, was something a reader could easily miss: a promise to purchase “24/7 clean power for federal buildings.” 

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It was a measure pushed by an eclectic group of interests, including the tech companies Google and Adobe and environmental groups. If implemented, it would result in 24/7 clean power going to more than 300,000 federal buildings scattered across the United States — from post offices Alaska, to courthouses in Washington, D.C.  

Now, “24/7 clean power” might sound a bit repetitive. If you’re using clean electricity, shouldn’t it be 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? But the situation — like most things to do with electricity grids and utilities — is a bit more complicated than that. There’s no such thing as a “renewable” electron or a “fossil fuel” electron: Once a power plant plugs into the grid, you can’t separate the power that came from fossil fuels from the energy that came from wind, solar, or hydropower. 

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So companies and cities looking for clean power do something a little bit tricky: They buy credits for renewable energy that cover how much power they use in a given year. Those credits help boost the demand for renewable energy and help to cut emissions — but they come with some pretty big limitations. A company headquartered in Washington, D.C. could be buying renewable power from a wind farm in Iowa. And by purchasing credits that encompass an entire year, buyers get to ignore a pesky thing called “variability” (that is, the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine) and still claim to run on renewables all the time. 

The new challenge, proposed in the Biden plan, is this: Buy enough clean energy — whether from wind and solar, biomass, geothermal, or some other source — to run operations every single hour of every single day

“It’s much, much harder,” said Michael Terrell, the director of energy at Google, which signed the letter encouraging the Biden administration to take on the challenge. “But it is doable and achievable.”

Google was the first company to set its own 24/7 clean energy goal, which it announced last year, and its analysis demonstrates the difficulty of procuring clean power all the time. The tech giant has been buying enough renewable credits to cover its energy use since 2017, but on an hour-by-hour basis the tech giants data centers aren’t always pulling from green sources. In Oklahoma, for example, 96 percent of Google’s round-the-clock power comes from clean energy — in South Carolina, however, it’s only 19 percent.

Terrell says the benefit of 24/7 goals is that they guarantee clean power be available on the grid where the company or building operates (as opposed to thousands of miles away in Iowa) and they can boost demand for clean energy that isn’t wind or solar. In the long run, because solar and wind aren’t available all the time, electricity grids are going to need to be outfitted with “firm” power sources that can kick in at any time. That will push developers to build big batteries, nuclear reactors, geothermal plants pulling heat from under the Earth’s surface, or even natural gas plants with carbon capture capabilities. 

“When you’re thinking about sourcing energy in every location on a 24/7 basis, it really motivates you to think even more about how to get the electricity grids to carbon-free faster,” Terrell said.

That’s the benefit of having the approach piloted by the government, which buys 53.8 million megawatt-hours of electricity every year, making it the largest consumer of electricity in the United States. All that buying power can help move markets, especially since federal buildings are everywhere, peppered across the country and in every regional grid. “You take a policy like this at the umbrella level and then it filters down in every part of the country and helps achieve these deep decarbonization goals,” said Lindsey Baxter Griffith, federal policy director at the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group focused on cutting air pollution. 

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. At the moment, utilities only sell clean energy on a monthly or annual scale — not hour-by-hour — and so the federal government will have to enter into new types of purchasing agreements to ensure that it’s buying clean power 24/7. 

And it’s not certain that every federally owned building will count as a “federal building.” According to estimates, the federal General Services Administration, or GSA, has around 300,000 properties — but that excludes those owned by the Department of Defense and some other agencies. In response to requests for comment, a spokesperson from the GSA said the agency “is currently assessing the federally owned buildings under its jurisdiction, custody and control where clean power from renewable sources will be required to meet the Biden-Harris Administration’s plan to produce ‘24/7 power for federal buildings.’” Griffith expects that the policy will be implemented first for buildings with big electricity footprints (national labs, for example) before trickling down to more and more buildings across the country.

The last time a president tried to green the federal government’s electricity it didn’t go so well. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring that federal agency buildings run on 20 percent renewable energy by 2020; the order was later revoked by President Donald Trump, and the goal was never met. (Today, federal agencies get around 8.6 percent of their electricity from renewables.) 

But the hope behind setting these 24/7 targets is that they will start a snowball effect, pushing other cities, companies, and even states to adopt these more advanced electricity targets. Google has already been joined by the city of Des Moines, Iowa, which has pledged to reach a similar target by 2035. If they succeed, other cities and companies may follow, helping to clean up the electricity grid and boost 24/7 clean goals around the country. 

“On the decarbonization journey, this is really the last — and most important — step,” Terrell said.