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April 17, 2012

Greenpeace Asks ‘How Clean is Your Cloud?’

Tiffany Trader

“How Clean is Your Cloud?” – that is the question asked by a Greenpeace report released today. Written by Gary Cook of Greenpeace International, the annual report examines the energy choices made by leading IT companies in the race to become the dominant cloud provider.

Greenpeace - How Clean is Your Cloud?Three companies in particular, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, were brought to task for unsustainable practices, such as engaging in rapid growth without an adequate energy strategy and for powering their clouds with “dirty energy.” All three companies rely heavily on coal and nuclear energy.

The report assigned letter grades to 14 Web-scale giants in four categories: Energy Transparency, Infrastructure Siting, Energy Efficiency & GHG Mitigation, and Renewables & Advocacy. Amazon got 3 Fs and a D. Apple, with 3 Ds and and an F, did not fare much better. Dell, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Twitter received a mix of Cs and Ds.

The only companies to receive any As (and it was only one each) were Akamai and Google. Google scored the highest overall, with an average B rating (two Bs, a C, and an A), while Yahoo received 3 Bs and a C.

“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,” Cook writes.

The primary cause of all this energy-suck is the engine inside every cloud infrastructure, the datacenter. Cook notes that datacenters are the factories of the 21st century, relied on to process and store staggering amounts of data. In fact, it’s possible for one mega-sized datacenter to draw as much power as 180,000 homes. The main issue, according to the report is that while the datacenters often employ the most innovative technologies, their energy sources do not.

“Despite significant improvements in efficiency, the exponential growth in cloud computing far outstrips these energy savings,” Cook writes.

A 2010 Greenpeace report, Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change, examined the power requirements of mega-datacenters and called attention to cloud’s growing energy addiction. The findings are bleak:

  1. The electricity consumption of data centers may be as much as 70% higher than previously predicted.

  2. The combined electricity demand of the internet/cloud (data centers and telecommunications network) globally in 2007 was approximately 623bn kWh. If the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world.

  3. Based on current projections, the demand for electricity will more than triple to 1,973bn kWh, an amount greater than the combined total demands of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil.

In April 2011, Greenpeace released How dirty is your data? A Look at the Energy Choices That Power Cloud Computing. Similar to this year’s report, it assessed the energy awareness of major IT brands and recommended ways for those companies to increase their green computing leadership. Further, Greenpeace was clear that IT has an essential role to play in the move to clean energy technology, stating that “we cannot achieve the level of [CO2] reduction need[ed] to protect the planet without IT energy solutions that will allow us to shift away from dirty energy sources and build our economic and planetary prosperity on clean sources of energy.”

Despite marketing-driven attempts to portray the cloud as inherently green, in truth a lack of transparency makes it difficult to evaluate these claims. Still, there are signs of progress. For example, the report points to collaborative efforts that are working to establish best practices for energy-efficient hardware and software design.

Several of the companies outlined in the report are taking a proactive role in assuring their future energy demands can be met with renewable energy sources. In particular, infrastructure citing policies, such as those enacted by GreenQloud (Iceland), Yahoo (New York), and Facebook (Sweden) leverage available renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric, geothermal and hydropower. Google has also both made a commitment to using renewable energy in future cloud expansions under a so-called power purchase agreement, a long-term contract with a utility or renewable energy provider.

Cook points to the Carbon Utilization Effectiveness (CUE) standard as another helpful tool, but only if companies start using it. Out of the 14 cloud vendors included in the report, only Akamai had begun submitting this information.

Today’s Greenpeace report cites a 2011 report from The International Energy Agency (IEA) that warned: “unless a decisive shift is made to clean energy investment and away from high-carbon sources of energy like coal, in the next five years (by 2017), the Earth will be locked into a disastrous cycle of unavoidable global warming.”

While there have been some positive steps, the report’s final analysis is that there is a substantial disconnect between the energy problem and current efforts to find a solution. As major consumers of electricity, large Internet-scale providers are in a position to influence market dynamics and affect energy policy. To that end, Greenpeace calls on companies “to make a corporate commitment to engage in energy policy decisions in regions where they establish operations.”

The Greenpeace report lays out the following specific guidelines to be included in discussions around clean energy advocacy.

  • Adoption of clean energy investment incentives specific to the IT sector for energy efficiency and renewable energy deployment.
  • Development of cost-effective, regionally compatible sources of renewable power generation for data centers (such as solar, wind, tidal and wave power).
  • Additional investments in the development and deployment of grid infrastructure and energy storage technology to enable much higher utilization of variable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

The report summary provides a nice encapsulation of the environmental watchdog’s vision of sustainability:

“By making better energy choices and demanding more from utility vendors, cloud companies have the opportunity to be a catalyst in driving utilities and governments toward the development of cleaner electricity generation that will ensure a truly green cloud for their long-term sustainability – and a greener grid for us all.”