New Greenpeace report digs up the dirt on Internet data centres

Feature story - 21 April, 2011
For most of us, when we think about our environmental footprint, the first things that spring to mind are how to commute to work, the kind of bags we use for grocery shopping, or the detergents we wash our clothes with. But how often do we consider the energy we use when surfing or searching the web? And how how much polluting, dirty energy does our Facebook profile generate?

"How dirty is your data?" Report published 21 April 2011

"How dirty is your data?" is the first ever report on the energy choices made by IT companies including Akamai, (Amazon Web Services), Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, and highlights the need for greater transparency from global IT brands on the energy and carbon footprint of their Internet infrastructure.

View the Full report (PDF, 36 pages) or Facilities table (PDF, 4 pages)

Data centres - where the Internet comes from

With more of our daily rituals taking place online than ever before, the information we generate - videos, pictures, emails, status updates, news, tweets - ends up in giant data storage facilities called data centres. Packed full of computer servers, these facilities consume huge amounts of electricity, amounting to a incredible 1.5 to 2 percent of global energy demand (3 percent in the U.S.) – and it's growing at a rate of 12 percent a year.

If the Internet was a country, it would rank 5th for the amount of electricity usage, just below Japan and above Russia. But unlike geographical states, the Internet's data centres can be found all over the world, clustering in locations that offer strong tax incentives and cheap, but often dirty, electricity (see map below).

View in Google Earth or embed map using this code:

Coal and nuclear - what much of the Internet runs on

Our analysis of current data center investments has found that despite significant advances in making data centres more energy efficient, the sector as a whole is largely ignoring the importance of using renewable energy. Instead, the IT sector is fueling its expansion, and the storage of your data, with dirty energy sources, like coal and nuclear.

Clean Cloud Power Report Card

Click on the image to enlarge.

Highlights from the report

  • The $1 Billion (USD) Apple iData Center in North Carolina, expected to open this spring, will consume as much as 100 MW of electricity, equivalent to the electricity usage of approximately 80,000 homes in the U.S. or over a quarter million in the E.U.. The surrounding energy grid has less than 5 percent clean energy, with the remaining 95 percent coming from dirty, dangerous sources like coal and nuclear.
  • Both Yahoo! and Google seem to understand the importance of a renewable energy supply, with Yahoo! siting most of its data centres near sources of renewable energy, and Google is directly signing power purchasing agreements for renewable energy and investing in solar and wind energy projects in many US states as well as Germany. Their models should be employed and improved upon by other Internet ("cloud computing") companies.
  • Facebook, one of the fastest growing and most popular destinations on the web, is unfortunately on track to be the most dependent cloud computing companies on coal-powered electricity, with over 53 percent of its facilities estimated to rely on coal to power the Facebook cloud.

Let's be clear - today's technological innovations should not depend on increasing demand for the dirty energy sources of the past. The IT industry prides itself on making the world a more transparent place - so it needs bold leaders who take responsibility for their own energy impacts.

While several companies have acknowledged that the sourcing of energy for data centres is a critical factor in ensuring our data is stored sustainably, and some are driving investment in clean sources of electricity, the IT sector at large has so far failed to commit to clean energy. This holds the sector back from being truly green.

Download Full Report: "How Dirty is Your Data?"

Download Table of Data Centers Evaluated and Estimates of Electricity Demand