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

Mobile devices and web services are growing cloud computing at a dizzying pace. How clean are these clouds? We've been tracking this issue since 2010. Here are our latest updates.

Greenpeace's #ClickClean campaign recognizes that "Some of the Internet’s biggest and most innovative companies are powering their data centers with clean, sustainable energy" and advocates "Together we can encourage the rest of our favorite platforms to do the same." Greenpeace recognizes Google, Facebook, and Apple as "Green Leaders". Pinterest, Twitter and Tumblr are cited for "Dirty Clicking". Greenpeace also calls out Amazon AWS in its full report. "AWS has dropped further and further behind its competitors in building an internet that runs on renewable sources of energy, estimated at only 15%, and is the least transparent of any company we evaluated." Pinterest is an Amazon AWS client and some observers think targeting Pinterest is Greenpeace's tactic to put pressure on Amazon.

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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.

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.

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.

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.



* 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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