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The lights may be green - but what about the energy? Photo: Dennis van Zuijlekom via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
The lights may be green - but what about the energy? Photo: Dennis van Zuijlekom via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
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Coal-heavy utilities stand in the way of a green internet

The Ecologist

12th May 2015

Powered by 100% renewable energy, Apple is maintaining its lead as the internet's greenest company, But others are lagging behind: Google has yet to reach 50% and relies heavily on coal, while Amazon's AWS, the massive 'dark cloud' of the web, won't even answer questions.

Tech companies are increasingly turning to the smart choice of renewable energy to power the internet. But they're hitting a wall of stubborn monopoly power companies that refuse to switch to 21st century sources of energy.

Major internet companies including Apple, Facebook and Google continue to lead efforts to build an internet that is renewably powered.

But an uncooperative fossil fuel sector and rapid energy demand growth for the internet driven by video-streaming places those ambitions under threat, according to a new report released today by Greenpeace.

Continued resistance to renewable investments from coal-heavy monopoly utilities in data center hot spots such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Taiwan is causing the rapid growth in the digital world to increase the demand for dirty energy.

"Tech companies are increasingly turning to the smart choice of renewable energy to power the internet", said Gary Cook, Senior IT Analyst for Greenpeace USA.

"But they're hitting a wall of stubborn monopoly power companies that refuse to switch to 21st century sources of energy. Internet companies need to work together to push utilities and policymakers to provide them with 100% renewable energy and avoid the creation of a dirty internet."

Greening the Apple

The report, 'Clicking Clean: A Guide to Building the Green Internet', found that Apple is the most aggressive in powering its data center operations with renewable energy, and continues to lead the way toward a green internet.

Despite continued rapid growth, Apple appears to have kept pace with its supply of renewable energy, maintaining its claim of a 100% renewably powered cloud for another year.

It has also announced several major renewable energy investments in the last year, including an $850 million deal to power its operations in California - the largest ever non-utility solar deal.

It is followed by Yahoo, Facebook and Google with 73%, 49% and 46% clean energy respectively. But Google's march toward 100% renewable energy is threatened by monopoly utilities like Duke Energy in North Carolina, a major hub for data centers.

Currently, NC energy users are only allowed to buy power from Duke, which gets only 2% of its electricity from renewable sources. But this may change: NC legislators are trying to increase the options for consumers to buy renewable energy from rival suppliers.

The dark giant of cloud computing: Amazon Web Services

The report also highlights the "continued lack of transparency" by 'cloud' giant Amazon Web Services (AWS), which provides the back-end computing power behind vast numbers of organizations from tiny to enormous including Netflix and the CIA.

AWS has taken some significant steps over the last year, including committing to power its operations with 100% renewable energy - but the lack of basic transparency about its energy use is a growing concern for its customers.

Although AWS did announce plans to purchase over 100 MW of wind energy this past year, Greenpeace discovered that AWS continues to rapidly expand in Virginia - where the utility Dominion powers the grid with only 2% renewable energy.

The company did not respond to Greenpeace's requests for information, so researchers carried out an analysis of permit applications for backup diesel generators by Amazon subsidiary Vadata, concluding that AWS made investments in new data center capacity in 2014 that would increase its energy demand by 200 MW in that state.

"Amazon needs to provide more information about its data center footprint and how it will move toward 100% renewable energy, as Apple, Google, and Facebook have done", said Cook.

"Its rapid expansion in coal dependent Virginia should be a concern to its customers like Netflix and Pinterest who are fully dependent on Amazon for their online operations. Increased transparency will allow AWS customers to know where they and AWS stand on their journey to 100% renewable energy."

Greenpeace found that Amazon's current investments would deliver an energy mix of 23% renewable energy for its operations.

Video-streaming driving energy demand increase

The energy use of our digital infrastructure, which would have ranked sixth in the world among countries in 2011, continues to rapidly increase, and is largely being driven by the dramatic growth of streaming video services like Youtube, Netflix, and Hulu.

Video streaming is estimated to account for more than 60% of consumer internet traffic today, and is expected to grow to 76% by 2018.

And it's not just AWS that's under-performing. 'Colocation' companies, the internet landlords that rent out data center space, continue to lag far behind consumer-facing companies in seeking renewable energy to power their operations.

One exception is Equinix, whose adoption of a 100% renewable energy commitment and offering of renewably hosted facilities is an important step forward and puts the company at the front of the colocation pack.

When companies did not respond to Greenpeace's questions, their energy consumption was estimated using conservative assumptions and publicly available information. Greenpeace is calling on all major internet companies to:

  • Make a long-term commitment to become 100% renewably powered.
  • Commit to transparency on IT performance and consumption of resources, including the sources of electricity, to enable customers, investors, and stakeholders to measure progress toward that goal.
  • Develop a strategy for increasing their supply of renewable energy, through a mixture of procurement, investment, and corporate advocacy to both electricity suppliers and government decision-makers.



The report: 'Clicking Clean: A Guide to Building the Green Internet'.



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