Good news: Google comes clean on energy use

by Tom Dowdall

September 9, 2011

Today Google has finally released information on exactly how much energy it takes to provide searches, email, youtube videos and all other Google services. For years Google has claimed this information was a “trade secret”, despite many competitors having already disclosed the same information. Such a lack of transparency led to much speculation about Google’s energy use from Blackle (remember that?), via much disputed kettle boiling comparisons, to our own recent dirty data report.

Since 2009 we’ve been pushing Google and all IT companies to be more transparent as part of our Cool IT leaderboard, and in our analysis of the power consumption and energy-source choices of data centers, as part of our Dirty Data report where Google scored a big fat F for transparency.

Now, the speculation can finally end here are the headline figures: Google uses 2,259,998 MWh of electricity and its operations produce 1,457,982 metric tones of CO2e. The largest proportion of electricity use comes from Google’s datacenters, which produce (together with Google offices) 1,226,350 metric tones of CO2e. To give those big figures a bit of context, Googleland would rank as 132 largest country in terms of electricity usage – larger than 82 countries in the world and its energy use is still growing fast.

The good news? Google used renewable power for 25 percent of its operations in 2010 and will increase this to 35 percent in 2012 through direct investment in renewable energy. We estimated Google’s data centers to be 36% renewable powered in our “How Dirty is Your Data?” Report. Based on our estimates, only Yahoo! uses more clean energy at 55%.

Google products such as Gmail and YouTube appear to have a relatively small footprint when measured on a per person basis. This is certainly due in part to its relatively high use of renewable energy and running efficient data centers, and also having a large user base it can spread this consumption across.

If we were giving out new grades based on today’s release, Google would likely earn a low to middle “B”.

Why transparency matters

Transparency is widely recognised as an essential building block toward environmental protection and sustainability. The IT industry is key to tackling climate change because energy consumption of the internet is projected to triple by 2020. Efficient and renewable powered IT services will be crucial to providing clean energy solutions in the future.

Until today, silence from the Googleplex on producing meaningful environmental footprint data seriously undermined its standing as a corporate leader on clean energy, and put it out of step with many other IT companies. Publishing this data helps back up Google’s impressive track record on renewable investment (US$700m in the last year) and policy work in support of strong climate targets.

There is a lot of good info that Google has put out today, including more detail on how it can claim to be “carbon neutral”, which we’ll have more to say on that later, but as a customer of Google and other “Cloud” computing companies, we need to see others put their numbers and plans for clean energy on the table, both to help customers make more informed decision about the carbon impact of different online services, and hopefully to spur greater transparency and competition for improved performance that the IT sector is so known for.

Of course a central part of the take home message from Google is that they want you to feel good about using their products, and should maybe be more thinking more about the footprint of the bottle of wine you are drinking than your Gmail account. However, Google’s data centers in South and North Carolina certainly don’t run on wine yet (78% and 62% coal powered respectively), and going forward we will be taking a deeper look at how Google and other companies are increasing the demand for dirty energy and the pollution that comes with it in many communities in their race to build the cloud, a task that is made slightly easier today with Google’s new commitment to transparency.

How does Google reporting compare?

Company Reports GHG Emissions Reports Electricity Use Reports Renewable Electricity Reports Data Center Energy Use

Discloses energy use of specific products/services
Facebook No No No No No
Google Yes Yes Yes Partial Gmail, YouTube, Search
HP Yes Yes Yes No No
Microsoft Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Yahoo Yes Yes Partial No No

Google is now disclosing more information than other big IT companies and is one of the first companies after Akamia to release information on how much energy and emissions are generated by its Gmail and Youtube services which are based on distributed servers, known as cloud computing.

Google’s big step forward leaves Facebook kinda lonesome at the back of the green IT class, failing to say anything about how much energy is consumed and emissions are created by all our millions of Facebook posts, photos and online friendships generate. Its high time Facebook took a step forward by ditching dirty coal power and following Google’s lead by increasing its use of renewable energy.

Ask Facebook to unfriend coal by joining the Unfriend Coal fan-page

Photo: Google

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