Greenpeace: The Cloud is Getting Greener, But Work Remains

Jan. 10, 2017
The cloud is getting greener, with a growing number of server farms supported by renewable power, according to a new report from Greenpeace. The environmental group, which has been one […]

The cloud is getting greener, with a growing number of server farms supported by renewable power, according to a new report from Greenpeace. The environmental group, which has been one of the data center industry’s toughest critics,  now says it has seen meaningful improvement in the use of green energy by cloud computing platforms. The findings were highlighted in Clicking Clean 2017, the latest report on cloud sustainability.

“We actually are seeing a significant increase in the prioritization of renewables among some of the largest internet companies,” Greenpeace said in the report. “We have witnessed leaders such as Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, and now Switch using their influence to push vendors, utilities, and governments to create access to renewable energy where previously there was none.”

Switch, which operates the SUPERNAP campus in Las Vegas, became the first multi-tenant data center provider to receive a perfect score in the six-year history of Greenpeace’s report on IT sustainability. (For more details, see Greenpeace Cites Switch for Leadership on Renewable Energy). The report also gave overall grades of “A” to Apple, Facebook and Google.

A Change of Tone From Greenpeace

Greenpeace has previously launched public campaigns to shame Facebook, Apple and Amazon for the use of “dirty coal” to power their data centers. The environmental group has called on data center operators, some of the largest energy users, to pressure electric utilities to offer more energy from renewable sources. The industry is making progress, both in the number of companies buying green energy and the volume of renewables being purchased.

“The past year has seen a significant jump as fifteen data center operators and major internet companies have embraced the importance of powering their rapidly growing operations with renewable energy,” Greenpeace notes. “The race to build a renewably powered internet started with digital platform leaders such as Facebook, Apple, and Google who first made 100% renewable commitments four years ago and have now been joined by nearly 20 internet companies, including global cloud and colocation companies who had previously been lagging far behind.”

The Greenpeace report adds to a number of indicators that the data center industry is making progress on its use of energy and impact on the environment. Last June the U.S. government reported America’s data centers have dramatically improved their energy efficiency, resulting in a small increase in industry electricity use during a period of explosive growth for cloud computing and online services. The Greenpeace report places heavier weighting on energy sourcing, emphasizing the need to procure “green electrons” from renewable energy sources.

Some Major Markets Not So Green

Although Greenpeace acknowledged the significant progress on green energy by major cloud providers, it warned that the gains are threatened by the limited availability of renewable energy in several of the largest markets for data center services.

“While important progress has been made in driving renewable energy investment in several markets, the dramatic increase in the number of data centers in markets such as Virginia, dominated by utilities that have little to no renewable energy, is driving a similarly dramatic increase in the consumption of coal and natural gas,” said Greenpeace. “In these markets, a much greater focus on advocacy is needed to overcome the entrenched political power of the utilities and create a pathway for the rapid adoption of renewables. This is particularly true in the United States following the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to roll back climate policies and revive the use of coal.”

Greenpeace now gives grades of A to Facebook and Apple, which it took to task in earlier PR campaigns highlighting the coal content of their data center energy footprints. But the group continues to have issues with cloud market leader Amazon Web Services, awarding the company only a grade of C for its efforts on green energy. Greenpeace faulted AWS for not disclosing more information about the energy effic9iency of its data centers.

“One of the single biggest obstacles to sector transparency is Amazon Web Services (AWS),” writes Greenpeace. “The world’s biggest cloud computer company remains almost completely non-transparent about the energy footprint of its massive operations. Among the global cloud providers, only AWS still refuses to make public basic details on the energy performance and environmental impact associated with its operations.”

Amazon says it has made a long-term commitment to renewable energy, and is making steady progress toward its goals.

“In November 2014 AWS made a long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy and in just two years we’ve made strong progress towards that goal,” an AWS spokesman said. “By April 2015 we hit 25 percent renewable, closed 2016 at 45 percent renewable, and have set a goal to reach 50 percent by the end of 2017. AWS has to date enabled 10 renewable energy projects in the United States that will deliver a grand total of 2.6 million MWh of energy annually onto the electric grid powering AWS data centers and four of these projects are already online. That said, we are nowhere near done. We will continue to make progress toward our 100 percent goal and have many exciting initiatives planned.”

Greenpeace noted Amazon’s use of large power purchase agreements (PPAs) to procure renewable sources to support its large data center cluster in Virginia.

“To get around the monopoly of Dominion Resources, AWS signed two PPAs for renewable projects in the same electricity grid as their data centers, one wind and one solar,” Greenpeace said. “Both projects represented important firsts in the region for utility-scale deployment of wind and solar.”

Progress on Transparency

While Amazon remains tight-lipped about some aspects of its data center operations, the broader data center industry has made progress on transparency around its energy use.

“When Greenpeace began evaluating data center operators in 2010, most companies in the sector were very reluctant to discuss electricity use in any level of detail, as if IT companies had adopted a collective code of silence,” the report said. “Fortunately, we have since seen a meaningful shift toward more transparency among global data center operators over the past three years. Business and government customers increasingly want to know key data points on the environmental performance of facilities to which they have off-shored their computing capacity, with the expectation that their colocation or cloud provider will help them achieve their carbon reduction and renewable energy goals.”

The nation’s data centers used an estimated 70 billion kilowatt hours of energy in 2014, an increase of just four percent from 2010, accounting for 1.8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. That’s a huge change from the previous decade, which saw double-digit annual gains in data center power usage.

In recent years, the number of providers committing to 100 percent renewable energy use has surged:

Last year the U.S. government projected that the data center industry’s reduced use of energy – also known as “negawatts” – will yield $60 billion in energy savings by 2020.

The Greenpeace report adds to the evidence debunking  the popular notion of data centers as energy hogs, a thesis advanced by The New York Times in a controversial 2012 series. Instead, the nation’s server farms have become remarkably efficient in their use of energy, making business functions more efficient as they shift to digital platforms.

Greenpeace warns that the push for more use of green energy is a long-term priority and requires ongoing vigilance from both cloud builders and the watchdogs tracking their progress.

“The IT sector is presented with a major decision about whether it will move beyond energy efficiency and commit to putting the growth of the internet on the path toward being fully renewably powered- providing a core infrastructure that we can heavily rely on as we seek to transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible to avoid climate change,” the group concluded.

About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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