Cloud providers must step up green IT efforts, says Greenpeace

Public cloud giants such as AWS and Microsoft must step up efforts in using sustainable energy, says Greenpeace

Cloud computing is growing exponentially and public cloud giants such as Amazon and Microsoft are lacking in efforts to use sustainable energy to provide cloud services, according to Greenpeace.

Cloud is becoming a big area for Greenpeace's environmental campaigns because of its growth rate and the lack of use of sustainable energy.

“Currently, cloud computing may be accounting for just 2-3% of total electricity used, but it is growing rapidly,” Andrew Hatton, head of IT at Greenpeace UK told Computer Weekly, ahead of his panel session at the fifth annual Cloud World Forum event in London on 26 and 27 June.  

Growing appetite for cloud-based IT is forcing global IT giants, including Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, to expand their cloud capacity at a breakneck pace.

But this speed is coming at a steep environmental expense. The cloud is driven by datacentres, and today, these datacentres are overwhelmingly powered by dirty, coal-fired plants, according to Greenpeace’s 2012 report, How Clean is your Cloud?

Investing in energy-efficient IT

While some big companies, such as Google, Facebook and Apple, have made progress in making their IT energy efficient, others, such as Amazon and Microsoft, are still using dirty sources of energy, said Hatton.

Apple’s latest environmental report showed that only 2% of its carbon footprint was directly related to IT facilities. Apple said it aims to use 100% renewable energy at all its facilities and datacentres.

Facebook also powers its IT infrastructure with 100% renewable energy sources, while Google is looking to use wind energy in its facilities as part of its carbon neutrality commitment.

“But companies such as Microsoft and Amazon are not pulling their full weight to become sustainable, despite have massive potential,” he said.

A New York Times report from September 2012 revealed that Microsoft wasted thousands of pounds worth of electricity at its Redmond Quincy datacentre to avoid a $210,000 (£129,000) penalty for underuse from its energy provider.

The software giant ran its diesel backup generators in excess of what was required to provide safe, reliable power to its datacentres.

To burn off the energy without a useful workload goes against everything that is being looked at by environmental organisations and governments, and is “un-green and nasty”, said datacentre analyst Clive Longbottom at the time.

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Financial and environmental balancing act

Hatton pointed out that 71% of Amazon Web Services’ global EC2 servers and datacentres are located in Virginia – an area that is coal-heavy and has low renewable sources in its energy mix.

Dominion Virginia Power, the utility provider in the area, reported that the electricity demand from datacentres has grown by more than 250MW in the past two years, and is projected to increase another 1,200MW over the next five years, according to Greenpeace’s cloud report.

“Amazon is probably the only large, publicly-listed company that does not report on its carbon emissions. It probably means that it is not doing anything in the area of sustainability,” said Hatton.

AWS does not participate in the Carbon Disclosure Project. “We have a problem with Amazon's lack of transparency,” Hatton said.

But one of AWS’s value propositions to its enterprise customers is its cheap costs. It follows a low-margin, high-volume strategy, and investing in sustainable energy means it would have to transfer some of the costs to its enterprise customers who look at cloud for cost savings.

Cost could be a barrier in the short term, said Hatton. But he pointed out that companies such as Google are making huge investment in renewables because it makes financial and environmental sense.

Energy prices of fossil fuels are estimated to rise, and cloud suppliers would then transfer some of that cost burden to their customers, he said.

“While Google may not be a direct competitor to AWS, many enterprises use Google’s cloud services, such as App Engine, and they understand that environmental sustainability is an issue,” said Hatton. “If Amazon doesn’t step up its efforts in using more renewable energy in its mix, then it could become the dirty man of the internet.”

Pressure from customers

According to Greenpeace, pressure from cloud suppliers’ enterprise and public sector customers could help bring the change.

“Governments, including the UK government, have pledged to cut their carbon emissions, so G-Cloud procurements should not include technology from vendors that are not investing in sustainable energy,” he warned.

Organisations must make energy sourcing part of their IT procurement policies, he said: “Customers should ask suppliers difficult questions such where they are sourcing their energy from and how much percentage of renewable energy they use.”

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