Greenpeace lauds tech giants for green energy push

November 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

As the planet warms, many eyes have turned toward the IT sector and the impact cloud computing energy requirements have on the environment. By strong-arming power companies – for business, not necessarily altruistic, reasons – tech giants like Google, Rackspace and Facebook can claim significant portions of their power comes from renewable sources like wind, hydro and solar.

“The changes I’m seeing from these companies gives me real hope,” Gary Cook of Greenpeace said at a recent discussion panel at the Exploratorium with representatives from large tech companies that manage how much energy their data centers consume.

Noticeably absent from the panel was the largest cloud computing provider of all: Amazon. The company is notoriously secret about, well, everything. A spokesperson did send me a canned statement saying its Oregon region data center and its government cloud data center use 100 percent carbon-free power. But the company operates seven other regional centers around the globe and independent analyses have concluded very little of the company’s total cloud computing is run through the Oregon facility.

“They’ve fallen behind the rest of the sector in terms of transparency,” said Cook, a lawyer by trade and longtime analyst of the energy industry. “They are not trying to manage their footprint.”

Greenpeace spokesperson David Pomerantz said his organization will ask Amazon customers to bring about change in “increasingly public ways.” The organization has made a point to stay aggressive by issuing reports and rankings on how the tech giants power their data centers and the impact they have on the environment. But it’s also done some wild publicity moves, like hanging big banners questioning corporate energy consumption in order to shame them and bring public awareness.

Many companies are shifting for business reasons. Bill Weihl holds a doctorate from MIT in computer science and oversees sustainability initiatives at Facebook. “We’d be lying if we said there’s no element of branding or marketing,” he said of those skeptical about companies that claim to make moves in the name of Mother Earth. But he points out that the shift is one where business interests and the public good align: “There are potential costs out there that renewable energy helps protect us from.”

Traditional energy markets are volatile and companies like Google, Facebook and Rackspace plan on being around for awhile. As heavy volume customers they have negotiating power in making utilities like Duke Power in North Carolina adjust to keep their business.

Greenpeace believes that Facebook’s new data center in Iowa would not have wind power if it weren’t for Facebook pressuring the local utility company. It also credits Google for pushing Duke Energy toward renewables, but will wait for Duke’s final plan before getting too excited.

Gary Demasi manages Google’s data center operations and points out that even though they are dealing with regulated monopolies they can still push for the ideal long-term renewable energy contracts. “They’re typically at a fixed price at prices that we would have never imagined two or three years ago. It’s a compelling cost issue for us.”

Later, Cook noted that concerns about renewables should be extended beyond the tech sector. “It’s not just the Googles and the Facebooks and the Apples. Companies that pretend like this isn’t an issue are going to have to play a lot of catch up.”

That raises a key question: Do people really care? Do questions about how a company powers its data centers really impact buying decisions – shopping on Amazon versus a competitor – when it comes down to it?

“Educating the end consumer is always going to be the challenge,” Cook said.

Caleb Garling is a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. E-mail:

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