In this guest post, Dominic Ward, vice president of corporate and business development at datacentre provider Verne Global, explains why the green power commitments of the tech giants may not be all that they seem.
The rise of the digital economy has a well-kept dirty secret. The movies we stream, the photos we store in the cloud and the entire digital world we live in means, on a global basis, the power used by datacentres now generates more polluting carbon than the aviation industry.
Perhaps to diffuse any concerns and attention with regard to their growing use of power, tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and Google, have announced plans to open datacentres supposedly run on renewably-produced electricity.
Apple, for instance, claims all of the energy used to by its US operations - including its corporate offices, retail stores and datacentres - came from renewable sources, winning the consumer tech behemoth praise from environmental lobbying group Greenpeace.
The reality is, however, a little different.
If a company sources power from a solar or wind farm, what happens when night falls or the wind drops? The company will revert to power from the main electricity grid.
In the US, around 10% of power comes from renewable sources, while Iceland is the only country in the world with 100% green energy production. So how can Apple claim to be 100% green at its Cork facility, or at its soon-to-open Galway datacentre, when only about 20% of Ireland's power grid is from renewable sources?
The answer is a little-publicised renewable market mechanism that is allowing companies from Silicon Valley and around the world to get away with a big green marketing scam: Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs).
This system and its sister scheme, the European Energy Certificate System (EECS), operates like airline carbon trading, allowing power users to buy 'certificates', which testify that their dollars have financed production of renewable electrons elsewhere.
In essence, if you use 1 kWh of coal or nuclear energy, you can buy a certificate to claim an equivalent 1kWh from renewable energy.
This is not real renewable energy, and it does not support the claims made by large tech companies about the provenance of their power.
We have known about this smokescreen for some time, but the issue gained prominence recently when Truthout, a campaigning journalism website, called the practice "misrepresentation" and "a boldfaced lie on Apple's part".
The problem is becoming endemic amongst tech companies, though, with the big Silicon Valley tech giants being the worst offenders.
All the major internet firms are using this strategy, many of whom now state that their new datacentres are 100% renewable.
Given their location and disclosed sources of power, this simply is not true, save for their use of purchased certificates.
Unless a datacentre generates all of its own power from renewable sources, or sources power from a national grid that uses entirely renewable energy, enterprises and consumers will continue to underestimate the true environmental impact of their computing. Google, to its credit, has at least publicly recognised this problem.
Several firms including Google and Apple this summer allowed their various initiatives to be highlighted by the White House as indication of a US commitment to the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in December. Their commitments to increased generation of renewable power are welcome. But, until they abandon this certification charade, these commitments will continue to appear as hollow claims.
So, what needs to happen?
1. Increased transparency on power sources
The RECs and EECS schemes currently allow tech companies and datacentre operators to hide the truth about their power cleanliness. Companies should be obliged by law to disclose the true nature of their power sources, including an explicit disclosure on the purchase of energy certificates. Only then will enterprise customers and consumers know the truth about their energy consumption from computing.
2. Upgrade the RECs and EECS schemes
The current systems are massively flawed. What began as a well-intended mechanism to promote new generation of renewable power has been poorly executed. It is time to upgrade the system to guarantee that every dollar, euro and pound spent on an energy certificate is truly invested in the installation of new renewable power generation.
3. Go green for real
Most renewable energy is not naturally suited to the tech industry: wind drops and the sun sets. Yet, the technology industry needs constant energy. The easy marketing 'win' is that it is easier for tech companies to simply pay for an energy certificate rather than shift to an entirely renewable energy source.
However, as we enter an era in which the technology and datacentre industry now has a carbon footprint in excess of the airline industry, surely this is not the right attitude.
Take the time to understand the finer points of your own energy contract and where the power you are using really comes from. Is it truly 'green'? And if you haven't taken the time to do so before, put some research into green datacentre options. The reality is that the only way to move the tech industry to 100% true clean energy is to clean up the power grids or move the tech industry to grids that are already clean.