“How clean is your cloud” two years later

Two years ago, Greenpeace put out a report titled “How clean is your cloud,” taking many of the IT giants to task for their lack of  commitment to sustainability in their data centers.  Now, a few years later, Greenpeace is still at it and has been pushing hard with a mixture of yearly public praise/shaming (or maybe they’d prefer the term “public education”) about the commitment and progress companies are making toward a sustainable cloud.

When reading the most recent report “Clicking clean,” it is really quite amazing how far the industry has come.  While there is still room for improvement, even the companies Greenpeace critiques are light-years ahead of where the industry was five years ago.    Apple, which was the black sheep of the initial report, has now committed to 100% renewable energy for its cloud, while Amazon, which was ahead of the curve in the initial report, is really hit hard.

Here’s the key infographic from the report:

Presentation1-001

Quoting from the report: “Internet companies who have refused to pay even lip service to sustainability […], most notably Amazon, are choosing how to power their infrastructure based solely on lowest electricity prices, without consideration for the impact their growing footprints have on human health or the environment.”

Personally, I find this a bit harsh, especially in the case of Amazon. Of course, Amazon, a company that competes on price more than the other tech giants, is seeking cost minimization in cloud management.  This not a bad thing.  But, more importantly, they have done quite a bit on the energy-efficiency side as well.  They do have at least two data centers that are 100% carbon-power free.  And, one should not forget that just the fact that the AWS allows companies to avoid managing their own clouds creates huge improvements for the energy-efficiency of the IT sector.  Both of these are big wins compared to where the IT sector was 4 years ago.  However, it is definitely true that Amazon has done much less than some of these other companies…and I guess that’s why Greenpeace hits them so hard.

The report makes for good reading for academics working in the area.  Lots of great examples for talks, and some nice statistical nuggets.  For example, the electricity demand of the cloud computing industry would be the sixth-largest country usage, right between Russia and Germany.  This is much higher up the hierarchy than even just two years ago!  But, I view this growth as a good thing — both socially and environmentally.  Yes, computing uses a lot of energy, and it is essential that we do our best to make it sustainable, but as cloud computing moves into more industries, it also brings with it enormous efficiency gains, both in terms of energy efficiency and efficiency more broadly construed.

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3 thoughts on ““How clean is your cloud” two years later

  1. I think that the real story here is that the incentives to grow renewables markets have worked as advertised: volume growth has reduced prices so that renewables are price-competitive with coal. Thus, Amazon and others choose to be carbon free not just to be green, but because its good for the bottom line. For example, the largest user of solar energy in Canada is Walmart, a company that is far from green.

    I believe we are at or close to an inflection point where there will be unstoppable growth in PV distributed generation, even with no additional policy support. This will make academic research on PV integration and dealing with supply variability immensely important.

    • Yes, the incentives have certainly worked as desired so far. But, incentives are a short term market fix, which makes me less optimistic that we are nearing an inflection point… I hope you’re right though!

  2. Pingback: Rigor + Relevance | Data centers & Energy: Did we get it backwards?

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