Moving to the cloud could be making acid rain.
While U.S. companies are not required to disclose energy information, such as carbon emissions, a report by Greenpeace revealed the high cost of the data centers tech companies rely upon to deliver their services. Apple was the least green of all, with its data centers at 54.5 percent reliance on coal, followed by Facebook at 53.2 percent and IBM with 51.6 percent. Yahoo, Google and Amazon were highlighted for their clean energy use.
As cloud computing becomes more widely adopted, companies will need to support a rising number of data centers in order to process and store the information that's generated. While Greenpeace was able to produce its report based on publicly accessible data, tech companies also display major problems with transparency regarding their energy practices, the report showed. Despite Google and Amazon's clean energy commitments, both scored an F for transparency.
As the report notes, the expansion of the Internet will require a growing amount of energy to continue. But a tendency towards secrecy across the IT industry prevents it from being possible to fully gauge the extent of IT's potential effect on the worldwide energy picture. According to Greenpeace, data centers may be consuming energy at a rate 70 percent higher than predicted, with the combined electricity demand of the web estimated to reach a figure greater than the combined total demands of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.
The data centers are themselves projected not only to continue growing in size (many are already the size of several department stores), but to consume more and more energy. Right now, Greenpeace predicts that U.S. data centers account for 3 percent of the national power supply. Apple's new $1 billion data facility in North Carolina is estimated to require the equivalent the energy needed to power of 80,000 U.S. homes.
North Carolina is the hub for what Greenpeace calls a "dirty data triangle," referring to a trio of giant data centers run by Apple, Google and Facebook. North Carolina provides an attractive set of tax incentives, as well as the promise low-cost energy, offered in an initiative by local economic development agencies to battle high unemployment and draw IT companies to the area. But the generation mix in the area is one of the dirtiest in the country, drawing only 4 percent from renewable sources, and 61 percent from coal.
But many of Google's practices prove to be far more eco-friendly than those pursued through its North Carolinian data hub. The company has shown a commitment to green goals, signing a 20-year power purchasing agreement with a wind energy company in Iowa, and investing $100 billion in an Oregon wind farm, as well as setting up subsidiary Google Energy to let it buy and sell wholesale energy.
Still, the report emphasizes the double standard in the IT sector regarding transparency. Though companies like Google and Facebook access huge amounts of personal data, they are cagey about revealing their own carbon footprints and energy decisions. But as these companies become important buyers of energy, the need for openness is greater than ever: without more information, the rest of the world will be left in the dark as to how these actions will affect the world's environmental future.