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More about companies in this post: Amazon - eBay - Facebook - Google - Microsoft - Yahoo

How Brown is the Cloud? Consumer Mega Datacenters Mixed on Renewable Energy

Mobile devices and services are growing cloud computing at a dizzying pace. How clean are these clouds?

Apple, for example, has launched its iCloud service. Greenpeace has noted that the service's likely home is its new data center located in an area of North Carolina whose power grid offers little renewable energy (4%) and lots of coal (51%). Now, the Charlotte Observer reports that Apple may be adding significant solar power to the mix. "Apple has quietly begun work on a solar farm that apparently could help power its sprawling data center…The plans are called "Project Dolphin Solar Farm A Expanded." Project Dolphin was the code name given Apple's plans to build a $1-billion data center…" It is likely to be a while until iCloud gets greener, as the paper reports that Apple has yet to apply for all the permits required to start construction.

Greenpeace's 2010 cloud computing report, Make IT Green, shows similar or worse energy mixes for Google NC (4%/51%), Microsoft IL (1%/73%), and Yahoo NE (7%/74%). Data centers with better renewable/coal mixes include Google OR (51%/34%), Microsoft TX (11%/37%), and Yahoo NY (28%/21%).*

Greenpeace has also called out Facebook on its under-construction OR data center, noting the company has "committed to a power service provider agreement with PacificCorp, a utility that gets the majority of its energy from coal-fired power stations." Facebook has committed to an ultra-effiecint PUE of 1.15, but Greenpeace is still calling for the world's most popular social media site to use 100% renewable energy.

Greenpeace's 2011 "How Dirty is Your Data?" report is accompanied by a 4-page table of ~40 data centers of 10 consumer cloud companies. Only ~20% use or plan to use 80%+ renewable energy: Amazon's not-yet-operational facilities in Boardman and McNary OR-US, Google's not-yet-operational facility in Council Bluffs IA-US and operational facility in Dalles OR-US, Microsoft's operational facilities in Dublin IE and Quincy WA-USA, and Yahoo's operational facilities in Lockport NY-US and Quincy WA-USA and not-yet operational Quincy Chicken Coop style facility. Greenpeace gives Yahoo the highest "Clean Energy Index" rating when considering each company's data centers in aggregate.

None of these cloud operators appear to have a consistent position on cloud energy sourcing to reduce CO2e, although most mega datacenters are striving for very low PUE. But the negatives of the energy source can overwhelm the positives of efficiency with the net result of a very brown cloud.

Google reports that its total energy electricity use, from data centers to offices, was 25% renewables in 2010, 30% in 2011, and is targeted for 35% in 2012.

Private clouds may well have similar issues, which is increasingly critical as new studies highlight cloud energy efficiency. For example, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) finds, "that by 2020, large U.S. companies that use cloud computing can achieve annual energy savings of $12.3 billion and annual carbon reductions equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil – enough to power 5.7 million cars for one year." It appears that carbon reductions in this analysis are calculated based on just energy efficiency and not on the potential of renewable based energy to power cloud facilities.

* The Greenpeace report also gives nuclear source percentages for each of these data centers' area power supply.

More about mega data centers and the growth of mobile subscribers and telecom CO2e.

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