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Pressure Builds on Amazon to Clean Up Data Center Energy Use


Renewable energy advocates got a shot of encouragement this past week when Amazon Web Services (AWS) – the world's largest provider of cloud computing-data center services – announced it will invest in what is to be Virginia's largest solar energy farm.

Responding to calls for it to power its cloud data centers with renewable energy, AWS announced it would craft and follow through on a plan to power all of them with 100 percent renewable energy. However, AWS management didn't offer up any target dates, and it hasn't been forthcoming with data regarding its energy usage or progress being made to achieve this goal, clean energy and environmental groups say.

AWS should do more, and it should be transparent about its energy usage and progress, they contend. Nonprofit organization Green America on June 11 launched an online campaign to raise the heat on AWS management to do just that.

Cleaning up AWS' dirty cloud

Internet and cell network data traffic continues to grow rapidly as use of mobile devices, access to wireless broadband services and machine-to-machine (M2M) connections proliferates. Coincidentally, more businesses are turning to third-party cloud data center operators such as Akamai, AWS, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to host and manage their information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. As a result, the power needs of cloud-data center operators is rising rapidly as well, even as energy efficiency improves significantly.

The decisions regarding the type of energy consumed in cloud data centers will go a long way towards determining the mix of energy sources economies and societies rely on for decades to come. Meanwhile, the social and environmental, as well as strictly economic, costs of fossil fuel energy use are rising fast and becoming increasingly apparent. In spite of this, government subsidies are benefiting fossil fuel companies to the tune of a “shocking” $5.3 trillion, more than all the governments in the world spend on health care, according to a recently released study from the IMF.

Virginia is home to more AWS cloud-data centers than any other U.S. state. Though significant, AWS' decision to partner with Community Energy in developing the 80-megawatt solar farm in Accomack County on Virginia's eastern shore will meet only a small percentage of AWS' cloud/data center power needs in the state, much less across the U.S. and worldwide.

“No one should have to choose between using the Internet or protecting the planet,” Green America writes in launching its “Amazon: Build a cleaner cloud” online campaign.

Grassroots consumer campaigns put pressure on cloud-data center operators

Green America works to foster socially and environmentally responsible economic growth in part by organizing grassroots campaigns that enlist consumers in putting pressure on businesses to enact changes in line with these core values. Having worked on climate change issues for several years, Green America is extending its efforts by zooming in on the impacts of energy usage on the part of the world's largest cloud data center operators, Green America campaign director, Elizabeth O'Connell, explained in an interview.

"Amazon.com's Amazon Web Services (AWS) servers are some of the largest and dirtiest in the industry,” Green America highlights on in its online campaign launch page. “While other major technology firms have established data centers powered by renewable energy, like wind and solar, Amazon continues to build data centers in areas where coal and natural gas are the dominant power sources. The burning of these fossil fuels increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to climate change.”

"The environmental, and health, impacts of cloud-data centers are growing larger and larger every day. As the largest provider of cloud services, AWS needs to be held accountable and responsible" for the decisions it makes regarding energy supplies and usage," O'Connell said.

"AWS is dragging its feet with regarding its renewable energy commitment and overall transparency," she continued. "Google, Facebook and Apple have made strong renewable energy commitments. AWS has made a strong long-term commitment as well, but it has not set any firm date, and it hasn't been transparent when it comes to disclosing data regarding its energy usage."
Green America is calling on AWS to power all its cloud data centers entirely from renewable energy sources by 2020. "We think this is a reasonable time frame," O'Connell explained. "Apple has proven that it's possible to be 100 percent reliant on renewable energy sources today."

In announcing plans to build the Virginia solar farm, AWS, for its part, said it expects that 40 percent of all cloud-data center power needs will be met by renewable energy sources by the end of 2016. Management added that renewable energy sources already meet 25 percent of the power needs of its global infrastructure.

Earlier this year, AWS announced that it is investing in a wind power farm in Benton County, Indiana, capable of generating 500,000 megawatt-hours of clean, renewable energy per year.

*Image credits: 1), 3) Green America; 2) Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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