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The Jolly Green Giant

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With the virtual world growing exponentially and consumer demand expected to rise by 60% or more by 2020, the energy appetite of the Cloud is vast. As this appetite rises it is also creating increased demand for at least one offline product: electricity.

The debate around the cloud and its green credentials is one that has been doing the rounds since the cloud came into fruition. I myself have in the past written a number of pieces extolling the many benefits for a business to migrate to the cloud but the cloud still has someway to go to prove its green credentials, especially when you look at a data centre’s energy consumption.

Always in the storm’s eye amid green ICT debates, these mammoth data centres have a mammoth appetite for electricity. They are easily the greediest electricity gobblers in the modern world, eating up electricity at a staggering rate. Global power demand for data centres alone grew to an estimated 40GW in 2013. This an increase of 7% compared to 2012 and according to market intelligence organisation IDC, stored data could reach nearly 2 zettabytes (1 billion terabytes) by next year.

All that demand equates to a lot of coal needed to generate power. This is a troublesome. Often the cheapest power options in many regions rely on energy generated by some of the oldest coal-fired power plants, which also often happen to be the dirtiest in terms of emissions and the thirstiest when it comes to water consumption.

The environmental rationale for technology companies to act is clear and simple, as a rapid shift to renewable energy is necessary to stem the worst impacts of climate change.

However, there are a few companies that are flying the flag for the green Internet movement. According to a recent report from environmental activists Greenpeace, a small number of leading data centre operators have taken key steps toward building a greener internet, in particularly those firms that have committed to build a 100% renewably powered platform.

Greenpeace writes that, “These commitments are having a profound impact in the real world, shifting investment from legacy coal, gas and nuclear power plants to renewable energy technologies, and disrupting the status quo among major electric utilities.”

The environmental rationale for technology companies to act is clear and simple, as a rapid shift to renewable energy is necessary to stem the worst impacts of climate change. Now, the business case is becoming more compelling as well: costs for renewable energy continue to drop, prices for fossil fuel-based electricity are rising, and leading companies are perceiving those price cues.

One such company that is really striding forward with the green mission is tech behemoth Apple. Yep! The very same firm that only two years ago became Greenpeace’s number one target after earning the dubious distinction of being among the worst cloudy climate offenders, thanks in part to its reliance on coal.

These days it’s, well, it’s a different story. Talk about turning over a new leaf. The tech giant has become one of the poster boys for the green cloud movement.

Since it’s very public 2012 battering Apple has come top of the class of Greenpeace’s most recent report – Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet – by ensuring 100% of its total data centre power consumption comes from renewables.

Greenpeace say that, “Apple has done the most of any data centre operator to make its part of the internet green through the on-site installation of renewable energy, particularly solar power.” The tech giant has deployed large solar farms for both its Nevada data centres, to provide a significant amount of new renewable energy.

Hats off to Apple for its push to have all-renewable energy sources for its data farms, it’s just a shame that other big players in the market aren’t being as forthcoming with their environmental rationales.

“Other companies lag far behind,” according to Greenpeace, “with little sense of urgency, choosing to paper over their growing dirty energy footprints with status quo solutions such as renewable energy credits and carbon offsets while rapidly expanding their infrastructure.

Greenpeace have rather bluntly condoned Amazon Web Services (AWS), for “paying lip service to sustainability, and simply buying dirty energy straight from the grid.” The activist group believes that AWS are “choosing how to power their infrastructure based solely on lowest electricity prices, without consideration to the impact their growing electricity footprints have on human health or the environment.” Ouch!

But you can see where Greenpeace are coming from as AWS, which hosts a large part of the internet, currently only sources 15% of its electricity demand with clean energy, with coal powering 28% of the company’s cloud, nuclear 27% and gas 25%.

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Bree is a technical writer with 15 year's experience. She specialises in cloud computing, finance and energy and has been published across a wide range of B2B, consumer magazines and newspapers. Bree was the editorial and production driving force for the UK's first cloud computing magazine as well as a number of other B2B magazines. Today, she splits her time between being Creative Director for Be Free Creative Ltd and as a technical writer.