Greenpeace takes aim at carbon footprint of “cloud computing”

Greenpeace may spend much of its time protesting our suppliers of electricity — mainly nuclear and coal — but the environmental group is turning its attention today on some of the biggest users of  electricity: the big IT and Internet companies who rely on massive, energy-hungry data centres to move their bits and bytes. Greenpeace came out with a study today called “How Dirty Is Your Data?” and its goal is to put pressure on those multibillion-dollar Internet giants making money in the “cloud” — Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. — but who are not doing enough to clean up their respective portion of the cloud. More than that, Greenpeace says some of these companies are refusing to disclose how much of the electricity they consume comes from dirty or dangerous sources. “The IT industry’s failure to disclose basic information on its rapidly growing energy footprint has hidden a continued reliance on 19th century dirty coal power to power its 21st century infrastructure. We think consumers want to know that when they upload a video or change their Facebook status that they are not contributing to toxic coal ash, global warming or future Fukishima’s.”

Greenpeace finds that data centres supporting Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the “cloud” consume up to 2 per cent of the world’s electricity but they are growing at a rate of 12 per cent a year. Unfortunately, many of the largest companies in this area do not release information on their energy use and associated impacts on global warming emissions.

Greenpeace estimates that some of these companies do, however, consume electricity with a coal intensity greater than the U.S. grid average. “One of the most popular social media companies, Facebook, is among the most dependent on coal-powered electricity, at 53.2 per cent,” according to Greenpeace.

Yahoo and Google are doing better, at least with respect to incorporating more renewables into the mix. “Yahoo! has sited near sources of renewable energy, and Google is directly purchasing clean power. Their models should be employed and improved upon by other cloud companies.”

Of the ten brands graded, Akamai, a global content distribution network, earned top of the class recognition for transparency. Yahoo! had the strongest infrastructure siting policy. IBM and Google demonstrated the best overall approach to reduce their current footprints.