TODAY’S STUDY: THE CLOUD COULD BE GREEN
How Clean is Your Cloud?
April 2012 (Greenpeace)
Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo – these global brands and a host of other IT companies are rapidly and fundamentally transforming the way in which we work, communicate, watch movies or TV, listen to music, and share pictures through “the cloud.” The growth and scale of investment in the cloud is truly mind-blowing, with estimates of a 50-fold increase in the amount of digital information by 2020 and nearly half a trillion in investment in the coming year, all to create and feed our desire for ubiquitous access to infinite information from our computers, phones and other mobile devices, instantly.
The engine that drives the cloud is the data center. Data centers are the factories of the 21st century information age, containing thousands of computers that store and manage our rapidly growing collection of data for consumption at a moment’s notice. These cloud data centers, many of which can be seen from space, consume a tremendous amount of electricity; some consume the equivalent of nearly 180,000 homes. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous innovation they contain and the clean energy potential they possess, most IT companies are rapidly expanding without considering how their choice of energy could impact society.
Given the energy-intensive nature of maintaining the cloud, access to significant amounts of electricity is a key factor in decisions about where to build these data centers. Since electricity plays a critical role in the cost structure of companies that use the cloud, there have been dramatic strides made in improving the energy efficiency design of the facilities and the thousands of computers that go inside. However, despite significant improvements in efficiency, the exponential growth in cloud computing far outstrips these energy savings. Companies must look not only at how efficiently they are consuming electricity, but also the sources of electricity that they are choosing.
This year’s report provides an updated and expanded look at the energy choices some of the largest and fastest growing IT companies are making as the race to build the cloud creates a new era of technology. These energy choices are completely invisible to consumers as we continue to rely more and more on our online world, but in places where the cloud touches the ground, these investments are having a very significant and rapidly growing impact in the offline world.
Instead of linking their IT innovation to equally innovative clean sources of electricity, many IT companies are simply choosing to attach their modern information factories to some of the dirtiest sources of electricity, supplied by some of the dirtiest utilities on the planet. These utilities, unlike the IT companies, are not known for their innovation.
Because of the tendency within the IT sector to cluster in the same geographic locations, these investments are driving significant new demand for both coal and nuclear power in many regions of the world – and in rapidly growing economies like India, they are driving demand for diesel from large onsite generators. If IT companies continue to rely on dirty sources of energy to power the cloud, the cloud itself will begin to have a measurable negative impact on our environment and communities.
However, we do see a growing realization and commitment from within several leading IT companies to realign their rapid growth with access to renewable sources of electricity at scale to power their online platforms. For these companies, we see these commitments significantly shaping decisions on where they build their data centers.
Companies such as Google are also making significant clean energy investments and signing long-term contracts for renewable energy to power their existing facilities. Even more significantly, many IT companies are recognizing that their influence and market power give them the opportunity and responsibility to demand clean energy investments and policy conditions to drive utilities and government officials to make better choices. IT companies can drive the electricity supply on the grid we all use to ever increasing amounts of renewable energy while phasing out the dirtiest and most dangerous sources.
With this year’s update, we have expanded our analysis to examine a total of 14 global IT companies who are leading the sector’s move to the cloud, and also taken a closer look at the key places around the globe where significant concentrations of data centers are being built. We explore the challenges and opportunities for IT companies to play a constructive role in driving renewable energy deployment.
Key findings of this year’s report:
1. Three of the largest IT companies building their business around the cloud – Amazon, Apple and Microsoft – are all rapidly expanding without adequate regard to source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds.
2. Yahoo and Google both continue to lead the sector in prioritizing access to renewable energy in their cloud expansion, and both have become more active in supporting policies to drive greater renewable energy investment.
3. Facebook, one of the largest online destinations with over 800 million users around the world, has now committed to power its platform with renewable energy. Facebook took the first major step in that direction with the construction of its latest data center in Sweden, which can be fully powered by renewable energy.
4. A growing concentration of data center investments in key locations is having a significant impact on energy demand and how the electricity grid is managed; if such concentrated expansion is allowed to continue, this will make it increasingly difficult to shift these investments and the surrounding community away from dirty sources of electricity.
5. Akamai, responsible for carrying a tremendous amount of internet traffic, is the first IT company to begin reporting its carbon intensity under the new Carbon Utilization Effectiveness (CUE) standard. There has been a notable absence of reporting under CUE by other companies.
6. There have been increasing attempts by some companies to portray the cloud as inherently “green,” despite a continued lack of transparency and very poor metrics for measuring performance or actual environmental impact.
7. There are increasing positive signs of collaboration and open source sharing of best practices in both hardware and software design among IT leaders to help accelerate improvement and deployment of energy efficient IT design
8. There have been increasing signs that more IT companies are beginning to take a proactive approach in ensuring their energy demand can be met with available renewable sources of electricity, and will increasingly play a role in shaping our energy future.