THE BLOG

Building the Green Internet: A Joint Venture for Tech Companies and Activists

05/12/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016

I've been looking into the environmental impact of our electronic gadgets for years, and if there's one thing I learned from producing The Story of Electronics, it's that companies have an invaluable role to play in making sure our digital lives make a positive contribution to both people and the planet.

We saw an incredible example of tech companies turned activists earlier this year. The open Internet -- an Internet where every person gets to express their voice, no matter how much money they have -- came under major threat when monopoly cable companies like AT&T and Comcast tried to gut net-neutrality rules.

Four million Americans (including tens of thousands of Greenpeace supporters) raised their voices and told the government to protect net neutrality, and government regulators listened, ruling against the cable companies in February in a major win for grassroots democracy. Part of the reason they succeeded is that many of the biggest Internet companies in the world, like Netflix, Amazon and Microsoft, added the power of their voices to the campaign.

Since they already won this battle, you may wonder why I'm writing this. Well, the Internet needs a lot of electricity, and its footprint is only growing as more people around the world get connected. If coal, gas and nuclear power fuels all of that digital growth, it will lock the world's new digital economy into the polluting energy of yesterday. If, on the other hand, the Internet is powered by renewable energy, then it can help usher in the clean-energy revolution we so desperately need to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is a major opportunity, and responsibility, for Internet companies to join activists in a crucial fight: making the Internet green.

Unfortunately, just as monopoly cable companies like AT&T and Comcast tried to hold us back from an open Internet, monopoly electric companies that are dependent on dirty energy want to hold us back from a green Internet. The data centers that power the Internet are concentrated in a few locations around the world, like North Carolina and Virginia, so much so that up to 70 percent of global Internet traffic passes through Northern Virginia every day.

These are the places where the Internet "cloud" touches the ground; they are predominantly powered by coal, gas and nuclear power, and the utilities that make and sell the electricity there are monopolies like Duke Energy in North Carolina and Dominion Power in Virginia. These companies have fought tooth and nail against opening the market up to wind and solar power.

The very same Internet companies that joined grassroots activists to protect net neutrality are perfectly positioned to join them again to push for more clean energy -- and, in fact, they must do so if they want to make good on promises they've made. Amazon, Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, Salesforce, and Equinix (a major provider of Internet data centers) all are committed to powering their corners of the Internet with 100-percent renewable energy. But all of them have operations in places like North Carolina and Virginia, so they'll never be able to get to 100-percent renewable energy as long as utilities like Duke and Dominion stand in the way.

One example: In 2014 alone, Amazon Web Services, the giant cloud-computing subsidiary of Amazon.com, needed as much electricity to power its data-center growth in Virginia as it would take to power 160,000 U.S. homes, according to Greenpeace's analysis. With Amazon's massive footprint there being powered almost entirely by coal, gas and nuclear energy from Dominion's power plants, Amazon will have to demand more wind and solar from Dominion and Virginia policy makers if it wants to make good on its 100-percent-renewable pledge.

Some companies have already done exactly this: Apple pushed its utility in Arizona to provide it with solar energy, and Facebook did the same thing in Iowa for wind energy. But these examples have been too few and far between.

The net-neutrality victory this year showed us Internet companies joining with millions of Americans in the fight to prevent Internet "slow lanes" and keep the Web open and free for everyone. Now they have the opportunity and obligation to join activists in the fight to avoid Internet "dirty lanes," so that we can have an Internet that is free, open and green.

For more details, check out Greenpeace's new report, "Clicking Clean: A Guide to Building the Green Internet."