New Data Debunks Some Data Centers’ Clean Energy Claims

Data centers, like this Google facility in Dalles, Oregon, may be using more energy than reported, a new study finds.
Data centers, like this Google facility in Dalles, Oregon, may be using more energy than reported, a new study finds.

Recent claims by owners of large data centers that a large part of their operations are powered by renewable energy have skeptics coming out of from under their solar panels. Now, there is hard data proving that skepticism is valid.

A report just out by Lux Research casts a large shadow on some data centers’ clean-energy claims. Scientists at Lux Research found the data centers frequently draw on far more coal-fired power with its much higher emissions than renewables. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple should be careful about the claims they make, lest they come across partly as PR stunts.

“They aren’t doing as much as they claim about sourcing their electricity,” said Ory Zik, Lux Vice President of Analytics.

Data centers throughout the country need a lot of power to run 24/7. They cannot rely on the intermittent supplies that come from solar and wind energy systems. As a result, they must draw electricity from the regional power grid. Solar and wind systems they have deployed or are developing can help supply renewable power to their centers and to power grids. But they supply nowhere near enough electricity on their own to run operate data centers reliably full-time.

PR_Graphic_2_2_16 from LUX Research
To determine the roles that various fuels play in powering data centers, Lux scientists divided the U.S. grid into 134 regions with data that is updated monthly by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (see the chart above). This compares to the 24 regions in the “eGrid” dataset that center operators currently rely on, which is updated only annually, most recently in 2012.

“We found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven data centers, in particular in its Berkeley County, South Carolina, location,” Zik said. As a result, the emissions Google is linked to are likely larger than they estimate by 42,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s the equivalent of about 8,500 additional SUVs on the road.

Zik said Amazon’s claims are off-base in 23 of its data centers in Virginia. Furthermore, the online retailer and Web services company is less than transparent about how it calculates its emissions, Zik continued. Those 23 centers use electricity from a grid that is powered 43 percent by coal, not 35 percent as inferred using the eGrid data set. This difference amounts to 85,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year more, or about 5,000 households’ worth of emissions, according to Lux.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on this commitment,” Amazon claims on its website. “As of April 2015, approximately 25 percent of the power consumed by our global infrastructure comes from renewable energy sources. By the end of 2016, we intend to reach 40 percent.”

On its site, Google says “We’re currently using renewable energy to power 37 percent of our operations and expect this to increase significantly in the next two years. In fact in our 2015 White House Climate Pledge, we commit to tripling our purchases of renewable energy by 2025.”

Amazon, Google and their industry brethren got their first dose of ‘heat’ on the subject in 2011 when Greenpeace grabbed what data were available at the time and issued its How Dirty is your Data report. The authors tried to shame the companies into using their relative wealth, transformative technology and corporate cultures to supply their operations with renewables.

Apple text in a box

Perhaps, then, there was an overreaction by PR-minded executives looking to get ahead of any controversy. But data tools such as Lux’s are catching up with them.

So, what’s their story now? Neither Google, Amazon nor Apple was willing to comment for the record by press time.

Alex Epstein, a contributor to Forbes and author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” took a shot at Apple last month here, criticizing it for “energy accounting sleight-of-hand” by “concealing that the vast majority of computer energy use comes from coal-powered manufacturing and the coal-powered Internet.”

After a quick search, Apple has since yanked one graphic from its website cited by Epstein but this text, in the box above, remains on the site.

Power supplied to the grid in many parts of the country earns renewable energy certificates, or RECs for short. Those credits place a monetary value on every megawatt-hour of renewable electricity solely for its environmental attributes. The credits are meant to boost the value of renewable energy systems among participating states. But they should not be confused with actual electricity generation. The values of credits fluctuate with market forces. They can be traded among owners in states with renewable energy requirements. Too often, data center operators fail to make that distinction.

“With the tools now available, it’s time for data center owners to bring their energy decisions the same data-driven rigor they use in the rest of their businesses,” Zik said.

Looking at the big picture, the fact that Amazon, Apple, Google and others are striving for cleaner and more sustainable energy supplies should be commended. That said, if they want to claim it, they should back it up in step with their current business practices. As among the largest electricity users on the plant, they are leading by example. Let’s hope they just keep the cart behind the horse and be more transparent in justifying their claims.

Something else to note: Data going back to 2012 does not capture the quickly evolving generation landscapes in many states due to growth in natural gas and solar and the closure of dozens of coal plants. That alone should provide a more accurate picture.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/Tony Webster 2) Courtesy of Lux Research 3) Screenshot via Apple

Clean energy advocate, strategic marketer and story teller with 15+ years supervisory experience and a proven track record achieving strategic and program objectives for energy, utility, technology and other clients in their marketplaces and policy arenas while engaging their priority stakeholders and target audiences. I'm always on the lookout for innovative policies, people, technologies and businesses that are demonstrating how sustainability can be both healthy and profitable. Catch my blog posts at TheEnergyFix.com. I've also written for The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Huffington Post and TheEnergyCollective.com.