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Clicking Clean: how renewable energy is powering data centres

This article was originally published on Technology.Info.
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If the internet was a country, it would be sixth in the world in terms of demand for electricity. That’s set to grow even more over the next few years, as more of the world’s population joins the online community. And with this kind of level of demand, the source of the electricity used in data centres really matters in terms of climate change and environmental impact. The campaigning organisation Greenpeace has published a report,

Clicking Clean

, on this very subject.

Why does it matter?

Surely, you may be thinking, the internet is saving energy around the world by reducing transport costs, making us all more energy efficient? Unfortunately, the gains in energy efficiency from moving business to an online model are more than outweighed by the increase in demand for electricity. Further, the internet’s energy footprint has largely been concentrated in areas where electricity is made from fossil fuels, not from renewable sources. Our ongoing ability to feed our growing internet habit depends on using cleaner, greener, and more sustainable sources of energy.

In 2012, Greenpeace published

How Clean is Your Cloud?

Just two years on, its update shows that leading data centre companies have begun to take action, although the picture is a mixed one. For every data centre operator with impeccably green credentials and a commitment to achieving 100% renewable energy use, there are others who are less committed. Some pay lip service, for example, offering carbon offsetting or renewable energy credits, instead of changing to renewables. Others provide no information about their energy sources or simply choose the cheapest option.

Detailed findings

Greenpeace looked at 19 major players, including co-location providers. These 19 companies cover over 300 data centres, up from 80 in the previous report. Key findings include:

  • Six major cloud brands, Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace and Salesforce, are committed to powering their data centres wholly from renewable energy.
  • Several leading brands, particularly Apple and Facebook, have become much more transparent about their energy use, although transparency still remains weak elsewhere.
  • Amazon Web Services provides the infrastructure for a large amount of internet use, but lags behind its competitors in terms of both use of renewables and transparency. It does not release any information about its energy use or environmental footprint. Twitter is also an offender in these areas.
  • Three of the major brands, Apple, Facebook and Google, successfully put pressure on the US’ largest utility, Duke Energy, to open the market to renewable energy purchases for large customers in North Carolina.
  • Google is expanding its renewable energy purchasing and investment, both independently and through collaboration with utility companies.
  • Facebook also continues to demonstrate its commitment to a green internet. Its decision to locate a data centre in Iowa has driven the largest purchase of wind turbines in the world.
  • Apple has shown the most improvement over the last two years, and is both aggressive and innovative in trying to achieve its commitment to become 100% powered by renewables.

Making a difference
The companies committed to building a future using 100% renewable energy are starting to have an impact. In several US states, including Iowa, Nevada, and North Carolina, the pressure from data centre operators has resulted in solar and wind power displacing coal, natural gas and nuclear plants, with wind or solar farms being built instead of new fossil fuel plants. This has a real effect on the local environment.
But the economic arguments are also turning in favour of renewables. Iceland looks like becoming a data centre hub because of its ready access to renewable energy, and the cost of renewables is falling all the time. At the same time, as fossil fuels become harder to extract, their cost is rising. Customers are applying pressure on companies to move to renewables, voting with their feet if necessary. These messages are ones that even those companies who currently remain unconvinced may have to heed.
More data centre energy management discussions can be found in the Extending the platform keynote session on 8th October and Software, energy and skills; the next axes of convergence keynote session on 9th October.