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

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.
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Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

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?

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