How clean is cloud computing? New data reveals how green Google's data centers really are

Like many big tech players, Google has committed to becoming greener – and now the search giant has released some fresh data providing better insights into how well the company is sticking to its goals.

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The release of fresh data about cloud region sustainability is part of a wider commitment from Google to fight climate change.  

Image: Google

In an effort to hold itself accountable to its sustainability goals, Google has developed a new publicly available metric that provides an indication of exactly how clean the company's cloud regions are around the world. 

Called the carbon-free energy percentage (CFE%), the number reflects the average mix of carbon-free and fossil-fuel energy that is used to power Google's data centers in each region.  

The higher the percentage, the more carbon-free power was used in the mix; in other words, a high CFE% is indicative of a "greener" region. On the other hand, a lower-scoring region has more hours in the year that require fossil-fuel based energy.  

SEE: IT Data Center Green Energy Policy (TechRepublic Premium)

London's CFE%, for instance, is 54%; this means that data center applications in the region are, on average, running on carbon-free energy just over half the time. 

The CFE% was calculated for every hour in Google's cloud regions, based on how much carbon-free energy was produced on the local grid at any given moment, as well as the amount of that renewable energy that was purchased by the Search giant. Hourly averages were aggregated for each region and are now available online and in a GitHub repository

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The CFE% reflects the average mix of carbon-free and fossil-fuel energy that is used to power Google's data centers in each region.   

Image: Google

Google is also sharing its cloud regions' grid carbon intensity, which corresponds to the average emissions generated by the local grid when it is necessary to use fossil fuel energy. Carbon intensities vary greatly from one grid to the other and provide a better picture of a particular region's sustainability.  

For example, Frankfurt and the Netherlands have similar CFE scores (61%), but the Netherlands has a higher emissions factor, meaning that the region overall has a larger carbon footprint. 

The release of fresh data about cloud region sustainability is part of a wider commitment from Google to fight climate change. Since 2017, the search company has matched 100% of its global electricity consumption with solar and wind energy; but that is not to say that Google's data centers run on renewable power at every hour of every day. 

Rather, Google calculates the total amount of electricity consumed by the company's facilities in a year, and purchases the same amount of power from carbon-free sources for the next 12 months. On a daily basis, however, buildings like data centers are powered by local electricity grids; and when the sun isn't shining or the wind not blowing, fossil-fuel energy sources step in. 

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Google has recently set a goal of running the business on carbon-free energy everywhere and at all times by 2030 – an ambitious objective that will require new technologies and strict measurements of progress made. 

"Completely decarbonizing our data center electricity supply is the critical next step in realizing a carbon-free future," said Google's cloud team. "On the way to achieving this goal, each Google cloud region will be supplied by a mix of more and more carbon-free energy and less and less fossil-based energy. We measure out progress along this path with our carbon-free energy percentage." 

Developing a metric such as the CFE%, therefore, is a first step towards transparency and accountability. Based on the data so far available, however, it appears that Google still has some way to go before achieving round-the-clock decarbonization. The discrepancies between different cloud regions are significant, ranging from Singapore's lowest 3% score, all the way to Oregon's CFE% of 89%. 

Overall, European cloud regions fare well: London's 54% mix stands at the bottom of the ranking, which goes all the way up to Finland, with a CFE score of 77%. Google previously said that its success in Finland is mostly due to purchasing large amounts of wind energy in the Nordic region. This has led to one of the company's data centers in the country, in Hamina, to match nearly all (97%) of its electricity consumption with carbon-free sources, on an hourly basis. 

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Google previously said that its success in Finland is mostly due to purchasing large amounts of wind energy in the Nordic region.  

Image: Google

To achieve the search company's 24x7 goal, however, will take more than purchasing vast amounts of renewable energy. Google is already working on a number of sustainability projects to that end; for example, the company recently showcased a new smart platform that allows it to match the timing of some compute tasks in data centers to the availability of lower-carbon energy.

In the meantime, Google has encouraged its customers to use CFE data to inform critical business decisions on where to locate services across the company's cloud infrastructure. Along with costs, latency or data residency considerations, said the search giant, carbon emissions should be a key factor when deciding where to run an application.  

Software company Salesforce, for one, has been using the new metric to try and maximize the amount of carbon-free energy that supplies the company's workloads. "With Google's new carbon-free energy percentage, Salesforce can prioritize locations that maximize carbon-free energy, reducing our footprint as we continue to deliver all our customers a carbon neutral cloud," said Patrick Flynn, vice president of sustainability at Salesforce. 

Google is not alone in its efforts to push green initiatives. A similar project to the CFE% was launched last year by Microsoft, which has pledged to use 100% renewable energy in all of its buildings and data centers by 2025. 

Microsoft at the time announced plans for a new data center region in Sweden, which will be fitted with a technology called the 24/7 matching solution. Much like Google's new CFE%, the technology taps IoT devices in the data center to provide an hourly picture of demand for power, and whether it is matched or not by renewable energy.