Google's green data plans a hypocrisy?

Google's plans for greener datacentres are being promoted with great fervour, but its calls for greater environmental accountability have some definite limitations.Google this week announced that it has set itself the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2008.

Google's plans for greener datacentres are being promoted with great fervour, but its calls for greater environmental accountability have some definite limitations.

Google this week announced that it has set itself the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2008. Its main ambition in this area is to improve the efficiency of its numerous datacentres.

"Our primary use of energy is in our datacentres," senior operations VP Urs Hölzle explained at the company's European press day in Paris, where the policy received its official launch.

Google reckons its datacentres already use half the power of conventional centres, thanks to a commitment to efficient power supply design and evaporative cooling rather than air conditioning. Any remaining deficit will be made up through cleaner energy sources (particularly solar), stringent planning for new centres and monitored offsetting activities.

"We want to be more than carbon neutral," Hölzle said. "We hope we will have a positive impact on the larger environment."

So far, so good -- but when it comes to assessing how those goals are being met, Google isn't quite so open.

While it plans to be audited annually by the Environmental Resources Trust to make sure its goals are being met, those reports won't be made available for public consumption.

This isn't because Google is worried it won't show continuous improvement, but because it has a bizarre policy not to disclose how many datacentres it actually runs. Merely mentioning this number to Yahoo or Microsoft might collapse the search engine ecosystem, apparently.

"I don't think we will publish the absolute numbers for it, mostly because we are still in very heavy competition with other companies" Hölzle said. "In the Internet industry, our infrastructure is part of our competitive advantage."

That unwillingness to disclose doesn't mean that pursuing greener datacentres isn't a worthy goal. But Google's current plan doesn't provide an ideal template for other businesses to follow. "Trust us, we're a big company" has never been a particularly persuasive argument.

"Our absolute number is less interesting than the efficiency with which we operate," Hölzle argued. I'm not so sure, especially when a company as big as Google is involved.

Showing chapter and verse -- the raw data Google loves sharing when it's stored or created almost anywhere else -- would be more impressive, and provide a better example for others to follow.

Angus Kidman stayed in Paris as a guest of Google.

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