Greenpeace raps cloud's reliance on coal

IT companies are becoming industrial-scale consumers of electricity, and as such need to make more responsible choices on energy supply, according to a new report
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

The carbon emissions generated by cloud computing will nearly double over the next ten years, according to a new study by Greenpeace, which calls for IT companies such as Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google to take a more responsible attitude in their role as industrial-scale consumers of electricity.

The focus of the Tuesday report, called "Cloud Computing and Climate Change", is to urge IT companies to use their clout to push for a greener agenda, Greenpeace said.

"Companies like Facebook, Google and other large players in the cloud-computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy," Greenpeace said in the report. "The last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power."

In 2007, the elements that make up cloud computing — datacentres, the telecoms infrastructure and PCs and peripherals — produced 830 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, Greenpeace said, citing a 2008 report by The Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative. By 2020 that figure is expected to rise to 1,430 metric tonnes, according to the report.

While concerns over IT power usage are not new, Greenpeace pointed to factors such as the launch of the iPad, the growth in netbooks and other tablet computers, the launch of Microsoft's Azure cloud services for business and the launch of new Android-based handsets as indications that cloud computing is reaching a critical mass.

"To be clear: We are not picking on Apple. We are not dissing the iPad. But maybe someone can come up with an app that calculates the carbon footprint of using different websites based on their location and energy deals," Greenpeace said in a statement. "While we marvel at the sleek unpolluted design of the iPad, we need to think about where this is all leading."

Currently, many companies are simply seeking out the cheapest deals on power, which often means drawing on coal-fired sources, Greenpeace said. It pointed out that Facebook in January commissioned a new datacentre in Oregon with power to be provided by PacificCorp, which generates most of its energy from coal-fired power stations.

"Increasing the energy efficiency of its servers and reducing the energy footprint of the infrastructure of datacentres are clearly to be commended, but efficiency by itself is not green if you are simply working to maximise output from the cheapest and dirtiest energy source available," Greenpeace said.

On the other hand, the organisation commended Yahoo for choosing to build a datacentre outside Buffalo, New York, where it is able to draw energy from a hydroelectric power plant, and Google for forming an energy subsidiary that will give it more flexibility as to where it buys electricity.

The report includes figures on the proportions of renewable and non-renewable energy used by particular datacentres. For example, it highlighted a Google facility in Dalles, Oregon, that draws on renewable energy for 50.9 percent of its supply. The power grid that supplies the Dalles datacentre uses 34.4 percent coal and 3.3 percent nuclear energy.

On the other hand, the grid supplying Microsoft's Chicago, Illinois, datacentre uses just 1 percent renewable energy, plus 72.8 percent coal and 22.3 percent nuclear, according to Greenpeace.

IT companies can push green power generation by choosing to locate datacentres in areas where a supply of renewable energy is available, as well as by pushing to influence policy choices on energy supply, according to Greenpeace.

"Ultimately, if cloud providers want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7," the organisation stated.

Greenpeace is recommending policies that will see global greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector peak by 2015 and return to current levels by 2020.

The report is available on Greenpeace's website.

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