How to Source Clean Power? Ask!

Despite the brouhaha over climate change in certain U.S. political circles, the science, proven to be real by armies of scientists in multiple countries, is being taken seriously by several industry giants. Google, for example, announced just last week that it purchased 100MW of wind power via Google Energy. Google isn’t just investing in clean energy it is committing to buy that wind energy for a fixed price per kilowatt over the next 20 years, in part to power its massive data centers.

Google’s blog explains the move: “the long term purchase agreement of renewable energy at a predetermined price partially protects us against future increases in power prices.”

Certainly hedging future energy costs is a savvy move considering that the cloud will bring extreme data center growth to many of the largest Internet companies. But make no mistake, Google is specifically aiming to reduce its environmental footprint despite the anticipated mega-growth in its near future.

Of course, not all Internet companies are as committed to going green.

“Despite some leadership by Yahoo!, Akamai, and Google, lack of transparency masks continued reliance on coal by Facebook and others to power the growth of cloud computing,” said Casey Harrell, spokesperson for Greenpeace International.

Indeed, Greenpeace just released a study, How dirty is your data?, that highlights the rapidly growing environmental footprint of the online world and offers an evaluation of both good and bad energy choices made by leading Information Technology (IT) companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo and others.

How dirty is your data? showcases the enormous amount of electricity required to power “the cloud” and finds that the IT industry, despite significant advances in energy efficient data center design, is both largely ignoring the importance of using renewable power as a top criterion for locating new infrastructure and is not transparent in disclosing its energy use.

“We expect these companies to play a pivotal role in ensuring we move to clean, safe renewable energy system and avoid future disasters like Fukishima (Japan’s nuclear reactors that blew up during the recent earthquake and tsunami),” Gary Cook, Greenpeace IT policy analyst said. “We think consumers want to know that when they upload a video or change their Facebook status that they are not contributing to toxic coal ash, global warming or future Fukishima’s.”

Among the key findings in the Greenpeace report are:

1) Some companies have a coal intensity greater than the U.S. grid average. One of the most popular social media companies, Facebook, is among the most dependent on coal-powered electricity at 53.2%.

2) Yahoo and Google seem to understand the importance of a renewable energy supply. Yahoo has sited near sources of renewable energy, and Google is directly purchasing clean power.

3) Of the 10 brands graded, Akamai, a global content distribution network, earned top of the class recognition for transparency; Yahoo had the strongest infrastructure siting policy; IBM and Google demonstrated the best overall approach to reduce their current footprints.

What you can do

In terms of actionable items for CIO’s, some of this depends on the size of a company, and CIO’s of IT companies specifically will have more opportunities for action. “Since we are trying to make our own IT footprint 100% renewable powered, I can give you the suggestions we’ve given our own CIO/Head of IT,” said Greenpeace’s Casey Harrell.

1. Contact your various IT vendors and tell them to be transparent with energy usage data. This will help CIOs understand the scope of their energy footprint — the first place to start when trying to solve a problem is to know what it is! Greenpeace’s report shows that this is a place where many cloud vendors can and should improve. Hearing from their clients will help drive this change.

Many companies are investing in accounting for their carbon emissions (filing with Carbon Disclosure Project, etc.) and as they shift more and more of their IT power to the cloud, their cloud providers need to help companies account for their power online. The report shows that companies like Akamai are doing some best-in-class disclosure (actually publishing monthly bills to their clients on their footprint and assessing their kilowatt hours of electricity per megabyte of data delivered) but most cloud companies are nowhere near as transparent as they should be (especially compared to their rhetoric around transparency in other spheres).

2. In terms of buying clean energy to power their services, this will really differ depending on the size of the company and the location. There are green energy purchasing programs (directly from utilities) in most states. This would account for electricity that companies use directly, i.e., server racks inside a company HQ and other in-house IT. However, the bulk of a company’s IT electricity use is likely in their servers, which are most likely either located in co-location facilities or captive owned and operated data centers.

In the case of co-location facilities, CIO’s need to make it known that they prefer to do business with companies that power their services with low carbon/clean energy.

Where companies own and operate their own facilities, companies should mimic Google and Yahoo, who are profiled in the report as companies that both site their facilities near clean power sources and, in Google’s case, get creative in their renewable energy mitigation strategies.

“In a twist of a well-known quote from one of my favorite movies Field of Dreams , “If you ask for clean power, companies will come.” So ask.

“Google has made it clear they prefer renewable energy and they have had no shortage of providers (large and small) approaching them for their business,” said Harrell. “If CIOs make the same ask, it will help drive change within the IT sector, and allow them more choice.”

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).