Much of the data center construction around the globe is being conducted by purveyors of popular websites like Facebook and Google. These heroes of the Information Age are feverishly expanding capacity to deal with the massive amount of data being generated by their services over the Internet.
But look behind the curtain, and these Wizards of Oz have a dirty little secret: To a staggering degree, they’re still buying electricity generated by coal-burning power plants.
“The IT industry’s failure to disclose basic information on its rapidly growing energy footprint has hidden a continued reliance on 19th-century dirty coal power to power its 21st-century infrastructure,” said Gary Cook, an IT policy analyst at Greenpeace International, an Amsterdam-based organization that uses nonviolent, creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems.
Apple, Facebook and IBM have the biggest appetites for coal-generated electricity, consuming enough to supply more than half of their power needs, according to a new report from Greenpeace titled, “How Dirty is Your Data?”.
The report analyzes publicly available information to estimate the amount of clean and dirty energy being driven by investment decisions and energy choices by the major Internet brands. Finding those numbers from within the companies proved nearly impossible, according to Cook.
“Despite the fact that data centers … currently consume 1.5% to 2% of all global electricity and are growing at a rate of 12% per year, companies in the sector as a whole do not release information on their energy use and its associated global warming emissions,” Cook wrote.
U.S. data center construction is clustering in places like North Carolina and the Midwest, where cheap, coal-powered electricity is abundant. When opened, the Apple iData Center in North Carolina, for example, will consume an estimated 100 megawatts — equivalent to the electricity needed to power about 80,000 U.S. homes, or a quarter-million European Union ones. Apple has not yet announced how the data center will be powered.
Greenpeace’s estimates of coal intensity put IBM, HP and Twitter just behind Apple and Facebook: Apple at 54.5%, Facebook at 53.2%, IBM at 51.6%, HP at 49.4% and Twitter at 42.5%. Google’s coal intensity is ranked at 34.7%, Microsoft’s at 34.1%, Amazon’s at 28.5% and Yahoo’s at 18.3%.
Recognizing that such IT giants could be the group that leads the world to renewable energy — or, conversely, hastens the adverse effects of global warming — Greenpeace this month issued an Earth Day challenge to Facebook, calling upon the company to “unfriend coal.”
Alas, the deadline came and went with no such action, despite a blizzard of posts from 700,000 Greenpeace supporters who set a Guinness World Record for the most comments on a Facebook post in 24 hours.
Google, at least, is getting the message when it comes to new data center construction. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced last week that it would purchase power for the next 20 years from a wind farm to be built in Oklahoma; this follows a similar agreement last year to buy power from a wind farm in Ohio. Google plans to sell surplus energy from the farms to the local electrical grid, thereby ensuring that more renewable energy enters the market as part of Google’s goal of operating on a carbon-neutral footprint.
Coal-burning power plants emit harmful chemicals that are warming the Earth’s atmosphere to life-threatening levels. Nuclear power, long proposed as the safe alternative, is explosive under certain circumstances, as we’ve seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to safely store spent fuel rods.
Wind, solar and geothermal power projects are coming along, but not as fast as the rate of data, which is forcing huge cloud providers to choose power sources during data center construction that appear to be less costly. Yet these business practices could be costly for environmental health, which affects us all.