Cloud Computing Companies Can Curb Carbon By Cutting Coal, Says Greenpeace Report

coal and shovel photo

Photo by jpmueller99 via Flickr CC

The use of "the cloud" in technology is becoming more and more pervasive, with large parts of our online lives stored on servers in data centers somewhere out there. But while cloud computing can make our lives easier when it comes to traveling, communication in business, storing and sharing pieces of our lives like photos, and connecting with friends, it also has an increasingly significant carbon footprint. But, just how big? Which companies are the heaviest hitters? Which are doing the best at minimizing their footprint? A new report from Greenpeace addresses these issues and highlights just how the cloud is contributing to our energy addiction.

Data Centers as the "Factories" of the 21st Century

How Dirty Is Your Data, released by Greenpeace this morning during the Green:Net event in San Francisco, California, pinpoints the problem:

"As cloud technology disrupts our lives in many positive ways, are the companies that are changing everything failing to address their own growing environmental footprint?"

The cloud is dependent on data centers, and data centers are dependent on fairly significant amounts of electricity to run, and more importantly cool, the servers that store and access that data. As Greenpeace puts it in the report, "In our technologically interconnected world, data centres are the factories of the 21st Century."

No doubt any company utilizing cloud technology recognizes that it's simply smart business to minimize electricity use. The less electricity consumed, the less the monthly energy bill and the higher the profit margin. But even as companies work to make data centers run as efficiently as possible, they also have to look at the type of energy they're using. This is the basis of Greenpeace's Unfriend Coal campaign that is working to get Facebook to boost its use of renewable energy for its data centers instead of coal-powered electricity.

Where Can IT Companies Improve Their Energy Use?

In Greenpeace's report, the group focuses on ways the IT sector as a whole can make needed changes in reducing the energy footprint of cloud computing.

"While a few companies have clearly understood that the source of energy is a critical factor in how green or dirty our data is, and have demonstrated a commitment to driving investment attached to clean sources of electricity, the sector as a whole still seeks to define 'green' as being 'more efficient'. This failure to commit to clean energy in the same way energy efficiency is embraced is driving demand for dirty energy, and is holding the sector back from being truly green."

Some of the major findings include:

  • •Data centres to house the explosion of virtual information currently consume 1.5-2% of all global electricity; this is growing at a rate of 12% a year.

  • •The IT industry points to cloud computing as the new, green model for our IT infrastructure needs, but few companies provide data that would allow us to objectively evaluate these claims.

  • •The technologies of the 21st century are still largely powered by the dirty coal power of the past, with over half of the companies rated herein relying on coal for between 50% and 80% of their energy needs.

  • •IT innovations have the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the economy, but IT's own growing demand for dirty energy remains largely unaddressed by the world's biggest IT brands.

  • •There is a lack of transparency across the industry about IT's own greenhouse gas footprint and a need to open up the books on its energy footprint.

  • •Data centre clusters (Google, Facebook, Apple) are cropping up in places like North Carolina and the US Midwest, where cheap and dirty coal-powered electricity is abundant.

  • •IT companies are failing to prioritise access to clean and renewable energy in their infrastructure siting decisions.

  • •Across the board, IT companies have thus far failed to commit to clean energy in the same way they are embracing energy efficiency, which is holding the sector back from being truly green.

IT Companies Ranked On Their Renewable Energy Use

So, how do the companies rank? Greenpeace has produced a report card:

cloud computing report card image

IT Companies Getting Renewable Energy Right

Of course, one of the major issues is where to build data centers where renewable energy is plentiful. The report gave several examples of data centers run successfully on renewable energy, including Google's 20-year power purchasing agreement for wind energy in Iowa, i/o Data Centers' 5,000-panel solar array on the roof of its new 580,000 sq ft facility in Phoenix, and GreenQloud in Iceland which is powered 100% by geothermal and hydropower energy.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and IBM are ahead of the curve in designing new and innovative ways to make data centers extremely energy efficient, and Google is particularly vocal about its efforts to support renewable energy and implement renewable energy technology in its designs as much as possible.

But there is room for growth, as the Greenpeace report points out.

Rather than argue that they are helpless to change the grid mix or impact the energy provider's energy choices, IT companies can help bring renewable energy and energy efficiency to scale by throwing their political weight behind:

  • • Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Standards at a national, state or regional level where they have operations or co-location facilities.

  • • Investment incentives for data centres and internet infrastructure to be powered by renewable energy.

  • • Regulatory intervention to reduce utilisation of dirty energy in grid mix (e.g.: IRP).

  • • Mechanisms to drive distributed renewable energy generation (PACE, FIT, etc.) and clean energy storage.

  • • Increased R&D; and deployment funding of clean energy generation and storage technologies.

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Cloud Computing Companies Can Curb Carbon By Cutting Coal, Says Greenpeace Report
The use of "the cloud" in technology is becoming more and more pervasive, with large parts of our online lives stored on servers in data centers somewhere out there. But while cloud computing can make our lives easier

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