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Data Center Renewables Starting to Have a Ripple Effect

Words by Hannah Miller
Energy & Environment
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Last year, in its ongoing campaign to get Amazon to commit to renewable energy, Greenpeace gave out mugs one Tuesday at lunchtime outside the company's headquarters in Seattle. The cups said “Amazon Web service is green” until staffers got back inside and filled them with coffee, at which point the heat changed the message to: "Why isn’t Amazon Web service green yet? Google is.” It wasn’t just mugs.

But Greenpeace’s campaign to get Amazon to go renewable for its massive data center operation won out last month, with a quiet announcement posted online that Amazon has “a long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure footprint.” That footprint includes the multibillion-dollar cloud that is Amazon Web Services, which hosts the files for Netflix, Pinterest, AirBnB and many other massive companies.

Greenpeace’s renewable data center campaign has been remarkably successful, especially when you look at the size of these companies and the amount of energy the data centers consume. The organization estimates that the cloud consumes as much electricity as a country – and in fact, it would be the sixth-largest country in the world, according to two Greenpeace reports rating 20 companies on their fossil fuel use. Just the companies they surveyed accounted for 300 data centers.

It only took Apple only two years to go from “dirty” to 100 percent renewable energy at all of its facilities. A lot of the other companies that did decide to commit to clean energy, like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, eBay, Rackspace, Box, Salesforce, Microsoft and others, also made strides in very short times. Part of this was really the culture of the tech industry. “Employees have been some of our strongest allies,” says David Pomerantz, the energy campaigner working on Greenpeace’s data center program (hence the coffee mugs). Scientists and engineers really felt passionate about climate change, he said.

But what’s even cooler is that these tech companies have had a ripple effect in the states where they've gone shopping for clean energy. In Utah, Iowa, North Carolina and Oregon, state energy policies and utility agreements have been changed in order to accommodate these companies coming to town and building data centers, which provide highly desirable jobs. These changes – which have made it easier for other companies to purchase clean energy – came as a part of the process.

“How difficult it is to buy renewables varies in different states,” said Pomerantz. When Greenpeace was working with tech companies interested in this, companies simply couldn’t call a utility and ask to buy 100 percent renewable power for their new centers. Energy companies didn't offer it, and some states have energy monopolies. In states like North Carolina, where Apple and Google recently built new data centers, it was illegal to buy power from anyone but the public utility.

North Carolina is an interesting example: of progress, but also how embedded fossil fuels are in the system. Google, Facebook and Apple are negotiating to get North Carolina's Duke Energy to sell them renewable power packages. But Duke only agreed that this would be offered to new demand, post 2012.

When the University of North Carolina later approached Duke to sign a similar agreement to meet the college’s sustainability goals, Duke refused, saying that the renewable options would only apply to new contracts.

“Duke is being dragged into this by its customers. It did not exactly encourage broad uptake,” said Pomerantz. Some of the other tech companies found resistance as well.

In other locations, however, the tech companies' renewable investments are projected to lower prices for all consumers. (Some of these best practices stories can be found starting on page 29 of the Greenpeace report, Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Clean Internet.)

In Iowa, the combined entrances of Google, Facebook and Microsoft got MidAmerican Energy to invest $1.9 billion in wind power, including the world’s largest order of onshore wind turbines.

MidAmerican CEO Bill Fehrman said in an October statement that “with this proposed expansion, beginning in 2016, MidAmerican Energy’s wind resources are expected to produce an amount of energy equivalent to approximately 50 percent of the retail energy customers are expected to need,”

“We’re extremely proud of how far we’ve come as a state, and as a company, since the installation of our first wind turbines a decade ago. These wind projects help stabilize rates in the long term for our customers, foster economic development in Iowa communities, and demonstrate MidAmerican Energy’s commitment to the environment,” he continued.

Read more about the Green Internet campaign, including the companies' commitments and progress, here.

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller is a writer, ecologist, and adventurer living in Colorado. She is interested in everything, but particularly in creative sustainability practices, the Internet, arts and culture, the human-machine interaction, and democracy. She's lived in Shanghai, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, and D.C., and taught English, run political campaigns, waited tables, and written puppet shows. She definitely wants to hear what you're up to. You can reach her at @hannahmiller215, email at golden.notebook at gmail.com or at her site: www.hannahmiller.net.

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