A journalist recently pointed out that if the tech sector were to adopt a color it would be green. He's right: the tech sector has made sustainability one of its main talking points. And you would think that the desire to geek out on things like "efficiency" and "emissions reductions" (read in a nasal voice) is practically embedded in a techie's genetic code, right?
We think of the technology breed as problem solvers. Their innovations make our lives faster, easier, and more connected. But are they actually earning their choice color and making our lives greener? Maybe so. Technology helps us reduce travel and carbon-intensive modes of production. But tech companies will have to do more problem solving that focuses on their own energy footprint if they hope to keep their image, and our planet, intact.
An article in CNN Money today points out that “the Internet uses more electricity in America than the auto industry uses to make cars and trucks." While utility companies claim to have plenty of power to fuel the tech sector's growing electricity demands and data center power needs (expected to more than triple by 2020), they rarely mention the type of energy that will be used to do so.
"The great thing about a data center is that they run full-out, 24-7, with no shifts and no seasonality ... It’s the type of customer where the meter spins and spins at an exponential pace. It may be the most ideal customer we could have,” said Clark Gillespy, a V.P. at Duke Energy, which serves IT customers in the coal-heavy state of North Carolina where Google, Facebook and Apple have data centers.
Electricity providers are all too happy to serve this growing industrial-scale market, but their customers, the tech companies, should be more concerned that they will mainly be fed dirty power.
Is the tech sector just greenwashing then when it talks about energy efficiency and other sustainability initiatives?
Energy efficiency is important. As Internet companies grow and build giant data centers to store information from the cloud, they should be using the most energy saving servers and facility designs. Facebook's recent effort to open source this information is useful, and such initiatives will hopefully make the whole industry more proactive and transparent about its energy use.
Facebook and others, however, cannot rest on the laurels of energy efficiency alone. Many have failed to be green when it comes to sourcing clean power. Google is perhaps the best example of a company that has acknowledged the need to increase access to renewable sources of power as the electricity demands of the tech sector grow.
I've written about Google's investments in clean energy before. Just over a week ago, the search giant signed another power purchase agreement (PPA) with a wind energy developer, this time in Oklahoma. A PPA locks an electricity buyer like Google into a long-term contract with a renewable energy developer, allowing the provider to more easily raise capital from investors who want to see stability and security. This type of agreement puts more renewable energy onto the grid, whether used to power existing IT facilities or not.
If the tech sector wants to come by its green badge honestly, more IT companies need to promote the development and deployment of renewable energy by going beyond energy efficiency. Investment in clean energy, as well as strong political advocacy in support of renewables, will help electricity providers deliver cleaner, safer options.
Tech companies need to use their purchasing power and their bully pulpit. Based on the amount of power cloud companies are projected to buy in coming years, utility companies are bound to listen.
Photo by Racineur.