TODAY’S STUDY: Who In Clean Tech Is Boosting New Energy
Clicking Clean: Who Is Winning The Race To Build A Green Internet?
January 2017 (Greenpeace)
The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species. Tasked with creating and then catering to the world’s insatiable appetite for messages, photos, and streaming video, along with critical systems supporting our financial, transportation, and communication infrastructures, the internet serves as the central nervous system of the modern global economy.
Not surprisingly, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to manufacture and power our devices, data centers, and related infrastructural needs. The energy footprint of the IT sector is already estimated to consume approximately 7% of global electricity.1 With an anticipated threefold increase in global internet traffic by 2020, 2 the internet’s energy footprint is expected to rise further, fueled both by our individual consumption of data and by the spread of the digital age to more of the world’s population, from 3 billion to over 4 billion globally. 3
How we build and power our quickly growing global digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming central to the question of whether we will be able to transition to renewable energy in time to avoid dangerous climate change. If data centers and other digital infrastructure are 100% renewably powered, our increasing reliance on the internet can actually accelerate our transition to a renewably powered economy. But, if our growing digital infrastructure is built in the opposite direction, locking us into a dramatic increase in the demand for electricity from coal and other dirty sources of energy that are changing our planet’s climate, it will be far more costly and take an unnecessarily longer time to reach a renewably powered economy.
In light of the sector’s pivotal role, Greenpeace began benchmarking the energy performance of the IT sector in 2009, challenging those companies who are the largest global architects and operators of the internet to commit to powering their rapid growth with 100% renewable energy. Ultimately, the largest players will be deciding whether our entire digital footprint is powered with renewable energy or antiquated fossil fuels.
Thankfully we actually are seeing a significant increase in the prioritization of renewables among some of the largest internet companies. 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,4 including global cloud and colocation companies who had previously been lagging far behind. Companies entering the race to build a renewably powered internet are motivated by:
-Customers who have carbon or renewable energy goals demanding that their digital infrastructure is powered by clean sources of electricity;
-The rising cost competitiveness of renewable energy, with long-term contracts increasingly at cost parity or even beating fossil fuels in many markets, while also providing long-term price security.
-Competitiveness among IT companies and the linkage of brand identity with a renewable supply of energy, given the growing concern on climate change among employees and customers.
IT companies who have made 100% renewable commitments are already seeing results in the deployment of a significant amount of renewable energy to power data centers and are modeling leadership for companies outside the IT sector to pursue their own 100% renewable energy goals. Direct purchase of renewable energy by corporations in the U.S. has increased dramatically since 2010, exceeding 3.2GW in 2015 alone, with over two-thirds of this volume attributed to renewable electricity deals by major internet companies. 5
But while the number of companies committed to a 100% renewable future continues to grow, many of the 100% RE commitments are being pursued on a path that is much more status quo than transformational. These companies are erroneously seeking to receive similar recognition as did the more impactful leadership of Apple, Google, Facebook, and others in the marketplace for being green. Shortcuts threaten to undermine the high impact efforts set by leaders within the sector, reducing pressure on utilities to shift their investment to bring new renewable energy onto the grid and creating a longer path toward a brighter and more sustainable future.
With this year’s update, we have expanded our analysis to look at the performance of East Asian internet giants such as Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, and Naver, who are now positioning to expand to the global level. But the lack of access to a renewable energy from monopoly utilities is a major obstacle toward creating a renewably powered internet in this region. Without key policy changes, the rapid growth of the internet in East Asia will likely be powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity.
A fully renewably powered internet will not happen overnight, but for sector companies to adopt a 100% renewable commitment is an important first step. This commitment must be matched with deeds that also show true leadership, taking successive steps in the same direction. 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.
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. Sustained and vocal advocacy by corporations, who recognize the ecological and economic imperative for an aggressive transition to renewable sources of electricity, has never been more important in the United States.
Given the critical importance of corporate advocacy for climate and renewable energy policies, we have adjusted our evaluation criteria to give increased attention to the advocacy efforts of companies. 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.
A similar but far more limited effort has started among Korean internet companies Samsung SDS and Kakao, who have also begun to push for access to renewable energy. Building the bridge to a sustainable supply of renewable electricity must become a core priority for the rest of the sector. Renewable energy advocacy must be as important as or even more important than current company advocacy efforts around privacy, government surveillance, or reduction of tax burdens.
-Apple retains its leadership spot for the third year in a row among platform operators. Both Apple and Google continue to lead the sector in matching their growth with an equivalent or larger supply of renewable energy, and both companies continue to use their influence to push governments as well as their utility and IT sector vendors to increase access to renewable energy for their operations.
-Switch, new to the Clicking Clean report this year, scored among the highest for any class of company and is the definitive leader among colocation operators for its efforts to transition its data center fleet to renewables as fast as possible through a combination of renewable energy procurement and aggressive advocacy.
-Major internet companies’ leadership has been a catalyst in driving a broader set of corporations to adopt 100% renewable goals, contributing to a dramatic increase in renewable deals in the U.S. signed directly by corporations, totally 3.4GW of renewable deals signed in 2015, with over two-thirds of this power from renewable deals by IT companies.
-Cloud computing market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS) took some important steps in the past year, including promising leadership in supporting clean energy policy. But given AWS’s continued lack of transparency and its rapid growth in Virginia and other markets largely served by dirty energy, it remains unclear whether the AWS cloud is actually on a path to becoming renewably powered.
-Video streaming is a tremendous driver of data demand, with 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, and is projected to reach 80% by 2020.7 Netflix alone already accounts for over one-third of internet traffic in North America8 and is in the midst of a worldwide expansion.
-The transition to the cloud could in fact increase the demand for coal and other fossil fuels despite significant gains in energy efficiency and adoption of a commitment to 100% renewable energy because of the dramatic growth in new data center construction by cloud and colocation companies such as AWS and Digital Realty in Virginia and other hot spots that have some of the lowest percentages of renewable electricity in the U.S.
-Faced with a lack of access to renewables in monopoly markets, there are increasing signs that some companies are resorting to status quo shortcuts to reach their claims of being renewably powered, increasing the demand for dirty energy and undermining the continued leadership and momentum of market leaders who are legitimately driving additional renewable investment. (see Shortcuts, page 39)
-The continued lack of transparency by many companies regarding their energy demand and the supply of electricity powering their data centers remains a significant threat to the sector’s long-term sustainability. The least transparent companies such as AWS, Tencent, LG CNS, and Baidu are also among the most dominant in their respective markets, making their lack of movement toward more transparency even more egregious.
-Advocacy for renewable energy is still sorely needed in South Korea, where utility monopolies dominate the energy market, and almost all power comes from fossil fuels. However, progress is being made in Gangwon Province, where the provincial government recently decided to build the first 100% renewably powered data center complex in Chuncheon City, thanks to the growing demand for and public support of renewable energy from the major IT companies in Korea…