Google invests to reduce carbon footprint

Google has an impressive record when it comes to green investment, but could the IT giant do more?

Google has an impressive record when it comes to green investment, but could the IT giant do more?

Last month reports surfaced that two searches on Google consumes the same amount of electricity as making a cup of tea.

Yet, one glance at Google's blogs on the subject gives the impression Google is a green champion. Its pledges include going carbon-free and the rapid improvement of its own datacentres, and the company is investing in green technologies.

Chief among these is the Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal initiative - known as RE, has invested US$45 million in breakthrough clean energy technologies. Like every company, we depend on the existing electrical grid, and we need clean sources of electricity that can compete economically," explained a spokesperson on the Google "Green Team."

Investments include high-flying kites capturing the powerful jet-stream, heated solar towers driving steam turbines and modular solar power stations. There have also been new approaches to deep hard rock drilling, a critical element to large-scale deployment of enhanced geothermal systems, power from the heat of the Earth's crust.

It is an impressive portfolio, but carbon dioxide emissions from IT are out of control. Analyst Gartner estimates the total business use of IT is responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That is not far off the well-publicised aviation figure of between 3% and 5% which gains much publicity and attention from eco-warriors.

Rakesh Kumar, vice-president of research for Gartner, says the rate of growth of IT emissions is alarming. "There is a 20% increase in the volume of just the X86 servers shipped year on year," he says. While he can not quantify the actual growth in emissions, he thinks it "is much higher than from the aircraft industry."

This is a bad news for a government trying to reduce overall emissions by 20% before 2020 and by 80% by 2050. IT cannot afford to be complacent.

Rakesh Kumar explains how IT emissions will continue to grow despite consolidation, virtualisation and efficiency gains. We are simply performing ever more IT-based tasks. A new datacentre built to exacting environmental standards and using the latest technologies will be "about 20-25% more efficient," he says. He adds, "We're going to have more datacentres," and they will be, ultimately, responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions.

IT wins over other sectors, notably aviation, because it can harness renewable energy, reducing the operational carbon footprint of a typical datacentre to virtually nil.

And this realisation is why Google is so keen to invest outside of IT. "We've made great strides to maximise the energy efficiency of our datacentres," explains the Green Team, adding, "we still want cleaner, cheaper sources of electricity for the power that we do use."

Google has taken many steps to reduce the impact of its datacentres, including air flow management, raising the cold aisle temperature to minimise air conditioning and using free cooling. "We greatly improved our efficiency by using water or air-side economisers when possible," says the Green Team, adding, "As we increase the percentage of our infrastructure that is custom-made by Google, we'll continue to reduce our carbon footprint."

Google's website even boasts that, "In the time it takes to do a Google search, your own personal computer will use more energy than we will use to answer your query."

When asked for clarification, however, - how much energy was used per search for example - Google was unable to provide figures, and Gartner's Kumar is suspicious that Google's efforts are aimed more at good publicity than at measurable improvements in IT emissions.

Google insists it keeps actual figures to itself for commercial reasons, but "Google is the best green marketing machine out there," says Kumar. "They won't disclose anything about their green strategy to us and if they are doing stuff that is good for the environment then follow their own philosophy and share some of the information. They're not doing anywhere near as much as they would like people to think that they are. That's my impression anyway."

But if Google's datacentres are as efficient as the company says, utilising its facilities for your own IT operations could save considerable greenhouse gas emissions. "Accessing technology-enabled services from the internet, or 'in the cloud', is an energy-efficient way to conduct business. Relying on Google servers allows for shared computing power, which increases utilisation rates and reduces costs and wasted electricity. Cloud computing is like carpooling for computing power," says the Green Team.

Kumar broadly agrees, "The cloud will help reduce the localised footprint, especially if those large datacentres are strategically placed and designed to be energy efficient, using green energy. But it will take a bit longer than people would like, it's in the right direction, but don't hold you breath," he says.

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