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AWS and Greenpeace at war over claims cloud giant has ‘turned its back’ on renewable energy pledge

Amazon Web Services hits back at Greenpeace for suggesting it has 'turned its back' on powering its cloud with renewable energy, as a new report claims its growth could be driving the use of fossil fuels in Virginia

Greenpeace is embroiled in a war of words with Amazon Web Services (AWS) after suggesting that the cloud giant has “turned its back” on its long-standing pledge to eventually power all its datacentres with renewable energy.

The claim appears in Greenpeace’s 42-page Clicking clean Virginia report, which aims to shine a light on the energy usage habits of the cloud computing giants whose server farms populate an area known as “datacentre alley” in the Loudoun County region of Virginia, US.

AWS comes in for criticism in the report over claims that its datacentre expansion activities are contributing to the continued growth in demand for fossil fuels in the area, as a result of its close ties with local utility provider Dominion Energy.

According to Greenpeace, Dominion Energy regularly cites the datacentre sector’s growing demand for power as justification for its continued investments in fossil fuels, which means the energy supply mix in the area is unlikely to change while that remains the case.

“Dominion’s lack of renewable energy supply and insistence on making significant new investments in fossil fuels will both delay Virginia’s transition to cleaner sources of energy and make it much more costly to do so,” the report adds.

In response to the report, Keith Windle, vice president of business development at Dominion Energy, told Computer Weekly: “A vast number of the world’s data centers reside in our service area, and it is our responsibility to not only provide them with reliable energy, but to help them meet their renewable energy goals.

"Our strategy for the future is on balancing our portfolio to meet our customers’ future energy needs in the most reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable manner possible," Windle added.

The Greenpeace report goes on to make the point that many cloud firms with renewable energy pledges continue to invest in expanding their server farm footprint in the area, and the report calls out AWS as the “biggest culprit” and an “unknowing silent partner” in Dominion’s growth strategy.

“If Amazon and other internet companies continue their rapid expansion of datacentres in Virginia, but allow Dominion to continue with its strategy to use rising datacentre demand to justify significant new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, they will be responsible for driving a massive new investment in fossil fuels that the planet cannot afford,” the Greenpeace report says.

“Without intervention from datacentre operators in Virginia, the internet will continue to drive carbon emissions with every click, swipe and share.”

This is despite the fact that Amazon went on record in November 2014 with a plan to eventually phase out the use of fossil fuels within the entire AWS global infrastructure, so it will eventually run exclusively on renewable energy sources.

“Even though AWS did a sizeable amount of renewable energy locally from 2015 to 2016, its dramatic growth in Virginia during this period continues to far exceed the additional supply from its renewable projects,” says the Greenpeace report.

“Since 2017, AWS appears to have turned its back on its 100% renewable commitment, increasing its already massive operations in Virginia by 59%, without any additional renewable energy supply,” it adds.

AWS vs Greenpeace

In a statement to Computer Weekly, AWS contested the claims and accused Greenpeace of “choosing to report inaccurate data” about its datacentre estate’s energy use, while ignoring its wide-ranging efforts to ramp up the supply of renewable energy in the area.

“Greenpeace… did not perform proper due diligence by fact-checking with AWS before publishing,” said a spokesperson for the cloud giant.

“Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’s current and projected energy usage. Additionally, the report does not properly highlight that AWS has been a major investor in solar projects across the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

When presented with AWS’s comments, Greenpeace told Computer Weekly it stands by its projections about the company’s energy footprint, which it claims is based on data that Amazon’s datacentre subsidiary, Vadata, has shared in various permits it has filed with Virginia state officials.

“To prepare our analysis of AWS energy demand in Virginia, we used data filed by AWS with relevant Virginia environmental agencies,” said Greenpeace USA senior corporate campaigner Elizabeth Jardim in a statement. “Amazon Web Services has added 23 new datacentres in Northern Virginia since 2016, but added zero new renewable projects to match the pace of the company’s energy demand.”

Amazon also claims that the Greenpeace report fails to take into account the work AWS does to ramp up supplies of renewable energy in Virginia through its partnerships with local utility providers, including Dominion Virginia.

It also suggests Greenpeace does not acknowledge the work Amazon does to support the creation of green energy tax and regulatory polices at federal and state government level, the spokesperson added.

“As of December 2018, Amazon and AWS have invested in 53 renewable energy projects (six of which are in Virginia), totalling over 1,016MW and are expected to deliver over 3,075,636 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy annually,” the statement continues.

“AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100% renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50% renewable energy in 2018. We have a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019 as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.”

Read more about Greenpeace and datacentres

On this point, Greenpeace spokesperson Jardim said the environmental group does acknowledge that Amazon has signed a “number of renewable energy deals”, but it is difficult to ascertain their collective significance because of how secretive Amazon is about its energy use, she claimed.

“Unlike other leading internet companies, which have steadily improved their transparency and environmental reporting since Greenpeace began our evaluations of internet companies in 2010,” she said.

Greenpeace has repeatedly called on AWS, and other cloud firms, in its annual Clicking clean reports to be more transparent on where they source the energy used to power their datacentres from, as previously reported by Computer Weekly.

“Both AWS and Amazon have unfortunately steadfastly refused to make public even the most basic data on the energy and environmental footprint of its operations, in stark contrast to Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook,” said Jardim.

“While both AWS and its parent have indeed signed a number of renewable energy deals, you can’t begin to evaluate their significance collectively or individually without the underlying context of their energy demand.

“We are glad to see Amazon Web Services reaffirming its commitment to 100% renewable energy, but to hold the company accountable for its progress, it has to be transparent.”

It is worth noting that AWS has previously spoken publicly of the challenges it faces in trying to balance its sustainability commitments with the growing end-user demand for cloud datacentre capacity, particularly when the latency requirements of some of its customers are factored in.

Speaking at the AWS Re:Invent user conference in December 2016, James Hamilton, vice-president and distinguished engineer, told attendees that the firm does operate datacentres that are powered solely by renewable energy in some locations, but it is not possible to serve the needs of its entire, global customer base from them at present.

“The AWS power team has signed up to deliver 40% [of renewable power by the end of 2017], and if they doubled the amount of renewable energy during that period – while we doubled our datacentre capacity – they would be at 25%,” he said at the time.

Read more on Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)

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