Verizon wants to make your smartphone’s data greener

This cell tower isn’t fooling anyone.
This cell tower isn’t fooling anyone.
Image: Darren McCollester / Getty Images
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If you’re a Verizon subscriber, all that Facebooking, texting, and tweeting you do on your smartphone is about to get a bit greener. The US telecom giant says that it will spend $100 million over the next year to install solar arrays and fuel cells at its data centers, corporate offices, and call centers in seven states.

Called the Green Energy Project, it’s part of a plan to halve the carbon emissions per terabyte of data streaming through Verizon’s network by 2020.

To that end, Verizon is negotiating a deal with Silicon Valley solar company SunPower to put up 5.4 megawatts of worth of photovoltaic panels at facilities in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona, and North Carolina.

Fuel cells from ClearEdge Power of Hillsboro, Oregon, will be installed at Verizon offices in California and New York and New Jersey – states that not coincidently offer financial incentives for companies that install such devices. Together, the solar and fuel cell systems are expected to eliminate 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to Verizon.

Clearly, this is partly about generating some green goodwill and sunny media attention. “This investment is the right thing to do,” Jim Gowen, Verizon’s chief sustainability officer, wrote in an email. “Not only for Verizon’s business operations, but also for our customers and the environment.”

But it’s also a bottom-line business decision. Fuel cells, in particular, have gained in popularity among the corporate set in recent years as they generate power 24/7 by converting hydrogen, natural gas, or biogas into electricity through an electrochemical process. That minimizes greenhouse gas emissions while providing a source of electricity that can operate independently of the power grid. Not a small consideration these days as extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy become more frequent.

In earthquake-prone California, Adobe, eBay, Google, and other big companies have installed Bloom Energy’s fuel cells to provide off-the-grid power.

“From a business perspective, our continuity is of critical importance to our business customers and partners,” said Gowen. “This investment is not going to take us 100% off the grid in any specific location, but is a powerful answer in reducing the load on our nation’s power grid while enhancing our proven service continuity—even during outages.”

While Verizon does not appear on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top corporate renewable energy consumers, the company’s April 30 announcement is significant in that it has chosen to generate its own clean electricity rather than offset fossil fuel consumption by buying renewable energy certificates. Those are awarded to developers of renewable energy projects and can be bought and sold on the market but do not necessarily mean that the buyer has added any green power to the grid.