Greenpeace has published a report called “How Clean is Your Cloud?" that evaluates 14 IT companies on their clean energy policy. It’s based on an assessment of the energy supply to more than 80 data centres.
The general conclusion is that while IT companies have been innovative in reducing data centre power use, they have ended up attaching their facilities to some of the dirtiest power sources. And because there’s a tendency for IT companies to gather in the same areas, their data centres are actually driving demand for coal and nuclear power. Greenpeace believes that if IT companies continue to rely on these dirty sources of energy the cloud will begin to have a measurable negative impact on our environment.
But the NGO does see light on the horizon, with some leading IT companies trying to align their rapid growth with the use of renewable energy, which is shaping their decisions on data centre locations. Greenpeace also acknowledges the clean energy investments and renewable energy contracts from some vendors (Google in particular) and also the fact that many IT companies are recognising that they have the market power to demand clean energy investments and influence utilities and governments.
Overall, Yahoo! and Dell came out top of the Clean Energy Index, with Oracle and Salesforce scoring lowest. More specific findings included:
Three of the largest cloud companies - Amazon, Apple and Microsoft – rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds.
Yahoo and Google both continue to lead the sector in prioritising access to renewable energy and both have become more active in supporting policies to drive greater renewable energy investment. Facebook has now also committed to using renewable energy, starting with its latest data centre in Sweden.
Akamai is the first IT company to begin reporting its carbon intensity under the Green Grid’s Carbon Utilisation Effectiveness (CUE) standard.
There are increasing positive signs of collaboration and open source sharing among IT leaders. There have also been more signs of IT companies taking a more proactive approach to using renewable sources of electricity.
However, there have been increasing attempts by some companies to portray the cloud as inherently “green,” despite a lack of transparency and poor metrics for measuring performance or environmental impact.
It’s a useful contribution from Greenpeace, particularly for that last comment, with which I couldn’t agree more. It’s been apparent for some time that there is a growing casual assumption that cloud-based IT is greener than in-house. It certainly should be, but it very much depends on individual circumstances.
Much of the problem is down to the over-use of the Green Grid’s PUE (Power Utilisation Effectiveness) metric – the ratio of total data centre power use to ICT power use. A lot of IT companies have made efforts to ensure their data centres are more energy efficient (which saves money as well as making them appear more sustainable) and they have the economies of scale that most enterprise cannot match.
But the best PUE only minimises the power used – it can still be dirty power. A company that uses only renewable energy is greener than the data centre of a major IT company with the best PUE in the world if it still gets its power from a coal-fired generator.