News & Insights for the AI Journey|Thursday, July 18, 2019
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Greenpeace Sees Progress Toward ‘Green’ Datacenters 

We can't do much without power, and cloud computing services are using a growing share of the world's electrical power. That trend is expected to accelerate as emerging markets like China scramble to meet energy demand from online users, a new report cautions.

Fully 50 percent of the world's projected population – 3.6 billion people – are expected to be connected to the Internet by 2017. During the same period, online data driven by streaming video is expected to explode to 121 exabytes, notes a new study released by Greenpeace USA. The rapid growth of datacenters providing cloud services is expected to increase electricity demand by as much as 60 percent by 2020, according to Greenpeace.

While the shift to online businesses has generated energy savings, the Greenpeace report, Clicking Clean, notes that "the Internet's growing energy footprint has thus far been mostly concentrated in places where energy is the dirtiest," a reference to coal-fired powered plants in emerging markets like China.

The report suggests that leading data center operators may be shifting away from fossil fuels to forge a "green Internet." The business case for shifting to renewable energy sources "is becoming more compelling as well: costs for renewable energy continue to drop, prices for fossil fuel-based electricity are rising, and leading companies are perceiving those price cues."

Cooling is among the biggest energy hogs at server farms. In response, social media companies like Facebook are building datacenters in northern latitudes like Sweden. The company is also powering a datacenter in Iowa with what the report touts as the largest purchase of wind turbines in the world.

Other cloud services providers lauded for a commitment to powering data centers with renewable energy are Apple, Box, Google, Rackspace Hosting, and Salesforce.com.

Greenpeace singled out some cloud services providers for the lack of action on sustainability. The report claims cloud computing juggernaut Amazon Web Services continues to power its datacenters "based solely on lowest electricity prices, without consideration to the impact their growing electricity footprints have on human health or the environment."

AWS received the lowest grades on the report's "Company Scorecard" energy usage.

greenpeace-scorecard-table

Amazon Web Services did not initially respond to our request for comment on the Greenpeace report findings, but offered this assessment after we went to press:

"We agree with Greenpeace that technology leaders should help safeguard the environment by implementing both efficient use and clean sources of energy. However Greenpeace’s report, Clicking Green, misses the mark by using false assumptions on AWS operations and inaccurate data on AWS energy consumption. We provided this feedback to Greenpeace prior to publishing their report."

"We work hard on our own, and together with our power providers all over the world, to offer AWS Cloud services in an environmentally friendly way in all of our Regions. AWS operates efficient and highly utilized datacenters across 10 different Regions globally, two of which (Oregon and GovCloud Regions) use 100% carbon-free power. We like offering customers the choice of being able to run carbon-free, and we love doing it without charging a premium over other North American regions."

"Running IT infrastructure on the AWS Cloud is inherently more energy efficient than traditional computing that depends on small, inefficient, and over-provisioned datacenters. With AWS, customers can reduce their overall consumption of IT resources while also improving utilization. Collectively, AWS customers are the driving force in this effort by eliminating hundreds of thousands of individual datacenters worldwide, along with the associated wasted capacity and overprovisioned energy.”

Meanwhile, the IT sector's energy footprint is shifting from devices to data centers and networks, the report found. "Datacenters will be the fastest growing part of the global IT sector energy footprint as our online world rapidly expands," Greenpeace said, with datacenter energy demand soaring 81 percent by 2020.

Energy demand for cloud services, defined as data centers and networks, is expected to jump 63 percent by 2020, the report warned. Hence, cloud computing alone ranked sixth on the list of national energy demand.

greenpeace-energy-demand

Heading the energy demand list is China, which relies heavily on coal to generate electricity. Much of the demand has been driven by the huge number of Chinese mobile device users. China's largest Internet company, Tencent, for example, now ranks fourth in the world in market capitalization behind Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

While Chinese IT companies are striving for energy efficiency, the Greenpeace report warns that soaring demand for cloud services offsets most carbon emissions savings.

Hence, the huge Chinese Internet market remains the wild card as global Internet providers struggle to shift to renewable energy sources.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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