In search of a greener cloud: Google vs. Microsoft

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Feature story - 10 October, 2012
Microsoft wants the world to think it has its groove back – that it’s moved beyond the ignominy of the Mac vs. PC Apple ads, Windows 95 and Clippy, the helpful mascot everyone loved so much. Microsoft is looking to the cloud to change its old-fashioned perception, starting with its cloud-centric Windows 8 due out later this month.

Microsoft has also made a lot of claims about how clean and green the cloud is, but is the Microsoft cloud still attached to a past energy era? We'll try to answer that question in this article, and others to come, by comparing Microsoft to Google, one of its main competitors.

Clippy has some advice for Microsoft

Cloud Power

Microsoft launched an advertising campaign this month for people to "Bing it on", and take the challenge to see if Bing is a better search engine than Google. It's not the only area where the companies compete, and that competition is likely to intensify as each company expands into the other's home turf. Google has long been the default search oracle and has also lead the charge to cloud-based software: its "Google Apps" for businesses offers functions like Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Drive, and its Android mobile operating system is now the most widely used for mobile devices.

While trailing Google in coming to the cloud party, Microsoft has been steadily expanding its cloud offerings, such as "SkyDrive" and "Microsoft 365" so that businesses can shift their use of profitable software products such as Microsoft Office to the cloud.

As Google and Microsoft fight for our clicks and dollars, it's worth considering which company is building its cloud in a way that is better for the environment. It's an important question, and not just for people who want their internet searches powered by clean energy. Many businesses have made commitments to lower their carbon footprint, and they should know whether Google Apps or Microsoft 365 best helps them meet that goal.

Both Google and Microsoft are undergoing rapid growth in their cloud infrastructure and corresponding energy demand and both companies have sought to highlight the potential for the cloud to be green, with both now committing to being "carbon neutral." Does this mean they are basically doing the same thing to deliver a green-powered cloud?

Greenpeace International has analysed both companies' approach to securing an energy supply for its data centres, the massive, energy-guzzling facilities that host and store their data. These buildings use as much electricity as small cities, so the energy that powers them determines how clean the footprints of Google and Microsoft really are. A comparison of their approaches and investments to date highlights two very different levels of commitment and responsibility to bringing customers a "green cloud".

Here is the breakdown of what we found:

Energy investments

Google is putting its money where its mouth is by investing heavily in clean energy outside of its data centres. This includes bets on wind farms in North Dakota and Oregon (set to be one of the world's largest wind farms), concentrated solar energy in California, and a project to connect offshore wind farms in the Atlantic to the Northeast, totalling over $915 million in clean energy so far.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has yet to significantly invest in clean energy. Its most recent data centre announcements show that is it continuing to build data centres in locations such as Wyoming and Virginia in the United States that are attached to dirty sources of electricity such as coal and nuclear power. Instead, Microsoft has so far committed only to "evaluate" investment and purchase options for renewable energy.

Clean power purchase contracts

Google has made three major power purchase agreements – long-term commitments to buy renewable wind power – to provide energy for two of its data centres in Iowa and Oklahoma.

Most recently, Google announced that it is purchasing 48 megawatts of clean, renewable wind power for its data centre in Oklahoma. Google faced a local electricity mix of more than 50% coal power in Oklahoma, but as one of the major electricity customers in the state, Google worked with the local utility to secure a new supply of renewable wind energy. Those kinds of agreements directly bring more renewable energy into the world and they provide certainty to wind farm developers, helping them to get crucial financing to build more projects.

Microsoft recently abandoned its carbon intensity reduction target and replaced it with a commitment to join Google in becoming "carbon neutral". While both companies have chosen to build at least one large data centre in a location that relies largely on hydropower (Google in The Dalles, OR; Microsoft in Quincy, WA), it is in the locations with a dirty electricity mix where we see Google and Microsoft taking very different approaches.

Rather than seeking to bring more renewable energy onto the grid via renewable energy contracts, Microsoft's way of being "carbon neutral" primarily relies on buying renewable energy credits (RECs) and carbon offsets. RECs are similar to carbon offsets in that they allow companies to buy the right to claim to be renewably powered, typically far away from where the electricity is being consumed, tactics that don't result in Microsoft's actual energy use getting any cleaner. In other words, Microsoft's use of RECs means that no less coal is burned and no more renewable energy is produced to power the Microsoft cloud.

Google also uses offsets and Renewable Energy Credits to meet part of its "carbon neutral" goal, but spends far more than Microsoft on direct investment and purchases of renewable energy, with contracts totalling 260 megawatts thus far.

One sign of potential promise is that Microsoft is instituting an internal carbon tax across its global operations. If directed properly, that tax could become an important new driver for better energy decisions and an additional source of investment revenue to buy or invest in renewable energy for its data centres. However, if the additional revenue is simply used to fund the purchase of more offsets and renewable energy credits to put gloss on Microsoft's steadily growing dirty energy footprint, Microsoft will fall still further behind Google in the clean energy race.

Case study: Midwestern United States

Google beats Microsoft for clean energy investment in the US Midwest

 

We find one of the clearest contrasts between the companies' renewable energy commitments in the decision each company makes for its electricity supply for its data centres in the middle of the United States, which has a considerable wind energy resource. Each company has two data centres in the region.

While Google has invested serious money into power purchase agreements for its Iowa and Oklahoma data centres, Microsoft has done nothing to increase the amount of clean energy flowing to its Iowa and Chicago facilities, despite massive wind potential in both areas. Iowa is already getting 20% of its power from wind in 2011, proving the success of wind in the state. If Microsoft is serious about its environmental claims, why hasn't it followed Google's example and bought into the wind boom there?

Google has invested far more money into clean energy and is going out of its way to clean up the grids where its data centres operate. Microsoft may want you to "Bing it on", but its brown cloud should give people and businesses with environmental worries cause for concern. If you or your business wants to use a search engine, cloud platform or e-mail client that will help speed up the switch to clean energy, Google clearly has a much stronger commitment and is far ahead of Microsoft in delivering a cleaner cloud.

Next week, we'll compare Microsoft and Google's records in how they've pushed governments and utilities for policies that will help them – and all of us – get more clean energy faster in the US and around the world.

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