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Greenpeace and data centers: a tough love

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One April morning in Seattle, Greenpeace activists climbed a new Amazon office building in the city’s downtown and hung a gigantic (800 sq ft) cloud-shaped banner on the side of the structure, facing a nearby building occupied by Microsoft offices. The banner read: “Amazon, Microsoft: how clean is your cloud?”

This was two days after Greenpeace published its latest How clean is your cloud? report – a scorecard for environmental friendliness featuring 14 of the Internet age’s biggest icons, many of which also happen to be some of the world’s biggest data center users and operators. The two Seattle-metro-based companies targeted by the renegade banner-hanging mission were obviously on the list.

The activists hung the banner in Seattle to once again call out Amazon and Microsoft on what Greenpeace said was a lackluster record of concern with the effects their data center location decisions had on the environment. Since 2009, Greenpeace has been on a mission to push the most high-profile companies that do business online to stop building data centers where they are going to be powered by energy generated through burning coal and to use their influence on the utility industry and the government to push for a transformation of the US electrical grid from one that relies mostly on fossil fuels to one dominated by clean energy sources, such as solar and wind.

Love them or hate them, in the two-plus years that Greenpeace has been putting pressure on data center operators, many in the firing range have adjusted their public stance and taken meaningful steps to use less coal power. Whether Apple’s public commitment in May to power one of its newest data centers entirely with renewable energy or Facebook’s commitment in August to make 25% of all energy it uses across the company come from renewable sources are directly attributable to Greenpeace’s efforts, we do not know.

What we do know, however, is that Greenpeace is not letting this issue go any time soon, and that the industry is waking up to this reality.

Cool IT

Greenpeace’s approach is not always confrontational. Its crusade also takes a more diplomatic route. A key ambassador on this front is Gary Cook, senior policy analyst for the organization’s Cool IT campaign. Cool IT is essentially about shifting the balance of power in the country’s energy agenda away from the energy industry, Cook says. “Right now, to be honest, too much of the energy debate is defined by two very small sets of [energy] companies who are too-much attached to the status quo,” he says. “The IT sector is actually quite the opposite. They’re not interested in status quo. They’re all about changing it and transforming and creating innovation and providing solutions.”

Greenpeace wants the IT sector to apply these principles to energy procurement with the view of reversing climate change. The organization has applauded some companies’ attempts to do this but says it is not enough. “We need this infrastructure (IT and the Internet) to be built attached to green energy sources,” Cook says. If the sector’s growth that is projected for the next 10 years is done without an eye on the source of energy, he believes that “this sector will become a much bigger part of the problem.”

Nice data if you can get it

Amazon, according to Greenpeace, is currently part of the problem. On its latest dirty-cloud report card the activist organization gave Amazon the lowest grades for infrastructure siting, energy-use transparency and advocacy for renewable energy and the second-to-lowest grade for energy efficiency and greenhouse-gas mitigation.

Amazon has criticized Greenpeace for using wrong data about the company’s operations to come to its conclusions but currently refuses to share the correct data without explaining why, Cook says. “We have no interest in inflating these figures,” he says. “The lack of transparency in this sector is really inhibiting progress.”

An Amazon spokesperson told FOCUS the company’s siting decisions were affected to a large extent by the location of its users. If you put a data center too far from a metropolitan area, the latency of the cloud service will simply be too high to stay competitive.

“We locate AWS (Amazon Web Services) data centers in places that allow companies to get the latencies they require,” the spokesperson says.

Cook recognizes that latency is a major factor. What Greenpeace wants, however, is for companies like Amazon to be aware of the energy mix at a location they choose, with a view to reducing the use of coal-based energy where possible.

Amazon has made some efforts in this space, the spokesperson said, and plans to do more in the future. Customers, for example, are offered a choice to go carbon-free when deploying virtual machines on Amazon’s cloud. Two of the Cloud’s four North American regions use “100% carbon-free power”. These are the Oregon region and the GovCloud region, the company spokesperson says. “We will continue to work hard on our own and alongside our power providers all over the world to offer our services in an environmentally friendly way in all of our regions,” she adds

It’s the future that counts

Another company Greenpeace has accused of being tight-lipped about data center energy use is Apple. In April it said the maker of iEverything used a comparatively dirty energy mix and had been keeping quiet about it. Apple has since committed to securing renewable energy for 100% of its newest North Carolina data center’s power requirements and announced plans to build another data center in Reno, Nevada, at a site that provides access to plenty of renewable energy. This site, called Reno Technology Park, provides tenants with a choice of energy sources, but whether Apple will choose to use the solar, wind or hydro power there remains to be seen.

From Cook’s perspective, the North Carolina announcement was a step in the right direction but a step that was nothing more than a “statement of intent”. Apple did not say anything about the future. “If you’re planning to grow there, how are you going to meet your electricity supply going forward?” Apple representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Facebook finally plays nice

One company that has made a public commitment to a substantial reduction in reliance on coal power, and giving itself a deadline in this pursuit, is Facebook. It has gone the longest distance in cooperating with Greenpeace, going from the defensive stance it adopted after it became the first company to be called out by the activists to signing a collaboration agreement with them. In December 2011, Facebook and Greenpeace officially agreed to work together to prioritize the use of clean energy by Facebook’s data centers. Facebook explicitly stated its data center siting policy would from that point on include a preference for clean energy.

In August, Facebook released detailed information on energy use of its data centers and committed to powering a quarter of its operations with clean power by 2015. At the same time, the company acknowledged it would be difficult to achieve this goal and that it did not yet know how exactly it would go about it. Given Facebook’s rate of growth, it warned, its consumption of coal power would get worse before it would get better.

Google gets it right

Google is another one of the few companies that gets it right, according to Cook. Greenpeace especially likes the way the Internet giant goes about stimulating the addition of clean-energy generation capacity to the grid. It does this through long-term power purchase agreements, or PPAs. The company has contracted to buy all energy generated by a 100MW wind farm going up in Oklahoma over the next 20 years to power its data center in the state. It did the same in Iowa about two years ago. Because it is required by law to buy energy from local utilities, Google sells the wind power into the grid after having stripped renewable energy credits from every kWh. It then buys regular grid energy for its data center, applying to it the renewable credits it has earned.

Google also pushed its green credentials at its latest data center build in Hamina, Finland. The retrofit facility uses existing underground tunnels to bring water in from the Gulf of Finland for cooling. But Cook says that while utilizing an old paper mill’s existing assets to take advantage of free cooling is innovative, Finland’s clean-energy supply is not all that advanced. While there is a fair amount of hydroelectric energy, Finland also uses a lot of nuclear and peat, whose associated carbon emissions are comparable to those of coal.

Joe Kava, senior director of data centers at Google, says through a combination of direct use of renewable energy and carbon-offset purchases the company has been “carbon-neutral” since 2007. Availability of renewable energy at any particular location weighs heavily on Google’s data center siting decisions, and the company applies a “shadow carbon price” when considering locations. “But these are not the only deciding factors,” Kava says. “We also need to consider things like availability of land, workforce, reasonable business regulations and cost.”

Like Amazon’s, Google’s siting decisions are  heavily influenced by the location of its end users. “The fact is, the places with the best clean-power potential may not be the same places where a data center can best serve its users,” Kava says. Despite this, Google does have the ambition to power all data centers with renewable energy. “Our utility providers are well aware of this goal, and we’re in regular communication with them,” Kava says.

Kava agrees that there needs to be wholesale transformation of the energy industry. “We’ve been pushing for it for years on several fronts,” he says. In addition to PPAs, Google has been investing in large-scale wind and solar projects and has published research on solar technologies. It has also pushed for government regulation to drive this transformation.

Get me clean

Getting comanies to work with utilities to clean up the energy supply is key for Greenpeace. The utilities are, afterall, the culprit of the campaign, and the data center industry is its focal point because IT is the fastest-growing sector, and data center operators like Google are the energy industry’s ideal customers. They have large predictable loads. They are easy to serve while generating a lot of revenue. This is why utilities presumably listen carefully to their desires.

“You have buying influence … and political influence that you’re not leveraging,” Cook says about the IT industry’s general attitude. “You’re kind of sitting on the sidelines, sort of watching the scrum going on in the field in many ways.”

So, if a customer did actually tell a utility it will build a 10MW data center in its territory, for example, but only if the utility adds 10MW of renewable energy generation capacity to its portfolio, would the utility do it?

PG&E, one of California’s largest utilities and provider of energy to most of the Silicon Valley, says it is not that simple. Kurt Haasch, senior high-tech business manager at PG&E, says energy procurement choices are made as part of a large long-term regulator-reviewed plan and involve more than just one customer’s wishes. The utility is required by state law, however, to have a third of its supply come from renewable sources by 2020, and the state utility commission says the company is on track to meeting that goal. “PG&E would be able to meet this request [for 10MW of renewable energy] with plans currently in place,” Haasch says.

Silicon Valley Power (SVP), although much smaller than PG&E, provides energy to one of the key cities for the Valley’s high-tech sector with one of the highest concentrations of data centers in the country: Santa Clara. John Roukema, SVP director, says the city-operated utility is open to working with customers who request new renewable capacity to come online. Like in PG&E’s case, however, such request would not be a huge agent for change, as the utility is already on its way to phasing out all of its coal-fired capacity.

Do look further

The most common response from data center owners and operators to Greenpeace’s Cool IT campaign has been pointing out the great progress the industry has made in energy efficiency. While applauding this progress, Cook says efficiency alone is not enough. Greenpeace is after a transformation. Should the data center industry play an active role in this transformation?

Matt Stansberry, director of content and publications at the Uptime Institute (a major data center industry association owned by the 451 Group), says it should. “Energy efficiency is not enough, and our industry has both the business drivers and leverage to affect renewable-energy adoption,” he says. “We are in the business of intelligence and innovation and we can lend our experience and resources to this issue. We can’t wait for the government to solve it for us.”

Stansberry says he believes Greenpeace needs to broaden its outlook regarding the IT sector. “Right now the organization is focused on site selection and facilities engineering, because those are tangible aspects of data centers,” he says. “But looking at IT practices – changing IT culture to be aware of how its decisions impact energy use – that is arguably the crux of overall data center energy consumption.”

The Green Grid, another major data center industry group, agrees that a broader focus is necessary to get to a real solution.

Mark Monroe, The Green Grid’s executive director, says: “While renewable energy sources are important, they are just one of several critical aspects that should be considered when designing a data center.” He believes the bigger picture will indeed include energy efficiency of the facilities systems, but will also consider utilization rates and efficiency of the IT equipment.

In its much-loved realm of efficiency, the data center industry applies metrics to gauge its success. How does Greenpeace know whether what it is doing is working? One way it does so is by observing changes in company policies, Cook says. It has observed a small shift by the data center industry in the direction it likes, but it has so far been too small of a shift, in his view. Ultimately, Cook wants to see the utility industry shifting its investment more toward clean energy sources. Greenpeace wants the IT industry to be its ally in this pursuit. Whether its two-tiered strategy – renegade confrontation combined with diplomacy – is going to work in persuading companies like Amazon to play ball remains to be seen.

At least there is now a dialogue.

A version of this article first appeared in the 24th issue of the DatacenterDynamics FOCUS magazine. Visit the FOCUS registration page for a free subscription.

Related images

  • Greenpeace airship A.E. Bates flying over Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, California. By Kim White/Greenpeace

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