Despite Improvements, Data in the Cloud Remains Dirty

Few parts of our lives remain untouched by software in the cloud. From connecting with friends on Facebook to organizing your finances on Mint, these tools are becoming increasingly embedded into our professional and personal lives.

But the seemingly innocuous act of "liking" this article, for example, uses real power--power mostly derived from burning coal.

This was the conclusion of a new study released by Greenpeace this week. The report--part of Greenpeace's "Cool IT" campaign--found that while leading IT companies have made significant improvements in efficiencies throughout their data centers, they continue to derive their energy through carbon-emitting energy sources, primarily coal.

That's good news for small business, which now have the option to purchase cutting-edge cloud-based business applications from among an increasingly robust group of providers, all fighting to make their services cheaper and more user friendly.

The report examined publicly available information on data centers run by the nation's leading IT companies. The energy use of these data centers is significant, states the report, making up 3 percent of U.S. consumption and 1.5 percent to 2 percent of global electricity consumption, with an average annual growth of 12 percent. Coal accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's energy consumption.

IT companies have been building data centers-which make up "the cloud" the majority of new software is hosted on--in a rush to keep up with demand, as well as the pressure of offering faster, more reliable access to their applications. Though a multitude of factors must be considered when siting a data center, the report says access to cheap power seems to remain the dominant factor. Data centers in North Carolina, for example, were built because of access to cheap electricity, which was freed after textile and furniture manufacturers left the area.

Greenpeace's green scorecard of cloud services (Click for full view.)
Following are highlights of the percentage of coal electricity used per company. Click the chart, at right, for Greenpeace's full scorecard.

  • Apple: 54.5 percent
  • Facebook: 53.2 percent
  • IBM: 51.6 percent

The Apple iData Center in North Carolina, for example, will consume an estimated 100 Megawatts (MW), equivalent to the electricity usage of approximately 80,000 homes in the United States or more than a quarter million in the European Union. Apple has not yet announced how the data center will be powered.

Just as Greenpeace released the report Thursday, Google announced it would purchase 100MW of wind energy from Next Era. The search giant has said it met its carbon neutrality goal in 2007.

What does this mean for small businesses serving an environmentally conscious demographic that's increasingly aware of their data footprint? If you have the option to host on a greener cloud--Amazon as opposed to Microsoft, for example--make the switch. Though the choice of one cloud service over another may seem arbitrary now, the increasing attention on clean data could lead soon to a significant reputation riff among the large players--and you want to make sure you're on the right side of it.

Whether the pressure of such reports, as well as green initiatives by Google and other tech companies, will be enough to get the rest of the players to switch to cleaner, alternative energy remains to be seen. It's not difficult to imagine, however--in an industry that has proved forward-looking and disruptive in many ways--that these companies could provide the investments and innovation to tip the scale towards permanent normalization of alternative energy.

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