Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

Summary: Just in time for Earth Day, the non-profit organization turns up the heat on some of the biggest cloud data center operators in the business, encouraging them to consider more renewable energy options as they expand.


In my time as a chronicler of things green and sustainable, I have seen Greenpeace take on several very high-level issues -- including a push for sustainable seafood harvesting practices that has helped change the polices of almost 20 high-profile grocery and special food retailers.

So, even though the mere mention of this particular non-profit organization's name is enough to raise the hackles of some readers, I follow its campaigns pretty closely -- including Greenpeace's ongoing push to get huge public cloud service providers to embrace more sustainable data center management and electricity sourcing policies. Its latest volley, the 2011 edition of "How Dirty is Your Data," which examines pretty much every big name in cloud services from Amazon to Yahoo! some of the biggest names, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon get a "failing" mark on at least metric that Greenpeace studies.

Why does it do this report at all? Greenpeace figures that since the data centers run by the 10 cloud companies it is following use oodles of power, it has the right to expose where the power actually comes from. So you'll be treated to a comprehensive table of power demand, power choices and the percentage of "dirty energy" that is used by a given company's data center.

Here's how the companies rate from a "coal intensity" standpoint, according to Greenpeace. (The organization doesn't provide data for Akamai.)

  1. Apple (54.5 percent)
  2. Facebook (52.8 percent)
  3. IBM (51.6 percent)
  4. Hewlett-Packard (49.4 percent)
  5. Twitter (42.5 percent)
  6. Google (34.7 percent)
  7. Microsoft (34.1 percent)
  8. Amazon (28.5 percent)
  9. Yahoo! (18.3 percent)

The companies that get praise include Akamai, for transparency; Yahoo!, for the places it locates its data centers; and IBM and Google for overall efforts to reduce their power consumption. Google and Yahoo! apparently are also the most active when it comes to sourcing renewable energy.

Here's Greenpeace's overall observation about the sector in its executive summary:

"While a few companies have clearly understood that the source of energy is a critical factor in how green or dirty our data is, and have demonstrated a commitment to driving investment attached to clean sources of electricity, the sector as a while still seeks to define 'green' as being 'more efficient.' This failure to commit to clean energy in the same way energy efficiency is embraced is driving demand for dirty energy, and is holding the sector back from being truly green."

Do I think Greenpeace is being unfair in this scrutiny? Not necessarily. Ultimately, I do believe the cloud computing could be more inherently green than the current model, but I agree that energy efficiency shouldn't be the only focus. These companies have the might to make a difference. Now, we'll have to see if the general public really cares whether Google's search engine is powered by more renewable energy than Microsoft's?

Topics: Data Centers, Amazon, Apple, Cloud, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

    It is more cost effective for these companies to focus on efficiency, rather than focusing on renewable sources of energy. Most current forms of renewable energy are inefficient, have little cost to benefit advantage to the business or the environment, and are less green to implement than utilizing highly efficient fossil fuel options like clean coal.

    When you add that reality to the cost of operating an inefficient renewable energy solution, it becomes obvious that these companies are doing the right thing.

    Being green just to be able to say, "we are being green" is foolish and dishonest, I think it is a good thing they are choosing not to do that.

    When "renewable" forms of energy become as efficient as current forms of energy, then and only then should we expect these large companies to go in that direction.

    Microsoft and Yahoo are not in business to "make a difference," nor should they be, that is the job of you and i on a personal level; they are in business to make money; if they can be more efficient while doing so great, but we should not expect them to neglect their primary responsibility to the share holders, in some futile effort to pacify radical special interest groups like green peace.
    Spoiled Pork
    • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

      @Spoiled Pork
      You really couldn't be more wrong in your post. Clean coal, for one, is a misnomer due in large part to the inability to capture the emissions in a real way. Clean coal is a talking point in order to not get legislation passed.

      Efficiency is a huge deal, no doubt about it, but efficiency alone is not enough to fix our growing energy problems and all of the additional problems that they cause. Google is spending a ton on renewable energy solutions and that money will be the impetus for increased efficiencies within that sector.
    • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

      @Spoiled Pork As a business it would be foolhardy to completely rule out efficiency over clean energy, especially since, as you stated, clean energy isn't up to snuff to fully meet their (or the customer's) demands.

      But the reality is that companies cannot wait for clean to catch up, otherwise it never will! If clean energy is to become a real alternative then it must be an imperative mission of companies to assist in the exploration and development of these alternatives.

      And it would be money well spent. Alternatives could result in cheaper options that ultimately cut costs and is great PR.
      • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

        @rland87 These companies are not in the business of energy exploration. You're model would have them wasting money on something that isn't their core competency and would be bad for shareholder value on something that could be money well spent if they get lucky.
  • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

    I think this is nit picky at best and secondly google and yahoo are software companies. By default they should be able to be more green than say Apple. Apple is a hardware company so naturally they are going to use up more energy even non-renewable sources of energy. Apple goes overboard trying to make it's products green and IMHO does a good job of it. I have not purchased a book since I got my Ipad and I don't even use lights on in the bed when I am reading since my Ipad is backlit.
    • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

      @AdonisSMU How much power does it take to recharge your iDevices?
  • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

    I could care less about all this green stuff today. Today is Good Friday and if it was not for God there wouldn't be a earth to worry about.
    • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

      I gotta say you bring up a good point. It is Good Friday and I have heard nothing about that in the media, but I have been bombarded with all this green talk.

      What many green advocates fail to realize, is that to a great many of people, the green movement is nothing but a leap of faith in and of itself to believe in. It is almost like the worlds new religion.

      Much like the days when Christianity was the "establishment," people got tired of being preached at, and the same is true with the green movement, many are tired of being preached at about that as well, especially since many feel that this so called man made threat to the planet, is just as phony as others believe God to be.

      Perhaps those of you who feel Google and others are not doing enough to go green, and should be dictated to by the likes of Greenpeace, should ask yourselves how would you feel if the Catholic Church was dictating that companies spend large sums of their profits on pro Christian agendas.

      Sure it would be great if Apple spent 50% of their profits on feeding the poor and clothing the naked, but who here thinks they should be mandated to do so by the Catholic Church?

      This business with Greenpeace is no different; and this is why we should make a difference in our own lives instead of demanding that OTHERS do so in their lives and businesses.
      Spoiled Pork
  • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

    I question your claim that "... the cloud computing could be more inherently green than the current model." A priori, I think this is false. "The cloud" is about moving processing from the desktop to remote servers, which are still accessed by the desktop. Given that I still have a client machine, which is consuming power, the fact that processing is performed remotely, but another machine also consuming power, would imply that total energy usage is -increased-. Of course, efficiently allocated blade servers may consume less power per MIPS, but unless I reduce the power consumption of my client as I consume more cloud services, I don't see how the result can be a net decline of power consumption.

    NEVER TRUST GREEN PEACE !!! They some ecological thugs and usually destroying non-US company. Some bay area in my country polluted by US mining company, and Green Peace said: "NO PROBLEM !!!". While some Europe country use paper produce by my country they said "Destroying rain forest, and have to be stop !!!" That's why NEVER TRUST GREEN PEACE !!!
  • RE: Is the 'cloud' green or not? Greenpeace scrutinizes 10 giants

    Just think how much "greener" the earth would be in Greenpeace turned off all their electronic devices and internal combustion engines, and all their members and donors quit using electricity and petroleum based products.