Clean power: It’s just a click away

As internet giants like Netflix, Apple, and Google make data storage in the Cloud a ubiquitous practice across the world, the number and energy use of data centres is set to spike exponentially. How can today’s tech leaders help shape a low-energy future?

apple solar hongyuan
An Apple solar farm in Hongyuan, China. Since 2012, all the company's data centres have run on renewable energy, and it also wants to power 100 per cent of its corporate facilities with renewable power. Image: Apple

Data centres are the factories of the future. As more individuals gain access to the Internet, the need for larger facilities to store customer data, serve web content and conduct back-end operations rises in turn. The growing popularity of streaming video services, hosted on websites like Netflix and Hulu, has further driven the demand for both data and power. The seemingly limitless capacities of the web do not exist in a vacuum, and the increasingly ubiquitous “Cloud” is neither clean nor carbon-neutral. Inextricably linked to the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with electrical generation, it is vital for all Internet companies to begin turning the tide towards a greener energy economy. 

While many don’t think of the Internet’s scope beyond their own personal devices, Greenpeace has recently noted that if the Internet were a country, its energy consumption would rank it sixth in the world. Of course this total is only expected to grow in the long term, as worldwide connectivity improves and the “Internet of Things” continues to proliferate, bringing more formerly analog tools and devices online.

Some well-known enterprises have already taken steps to clean up their energy act. Apple, for example, has publicly touted its decision to begin powering all its United States datacentres and corporate offices with renewable power sources. In April, the company announced that its US facilities were 100 per cent successful in achieving this goal. In these figures Apple does not include the manufacturing, transport, and use of its products - which accounts for 99 percent of its carbon footprint – but the company has begun to extend its clean energy efforts to its retail locations as well, indicating hope for future accomplishments.

The company is also expanding its clean energy goals abroad. Taking significant steps in Singapore, a landmark initiative with Sunseap Group combining on-site rooftop solar leasing of 1.1MWp and up to 40 GWh worth of clean energy delivered via an off-site Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) will cover all of the company’s electricity needs in the country. This plan helps Apple partake in the benefits of renewable power and confront the challenges presented by Singapore’s natural land constraints.

China has also been a core centre of focus for Apple’s clean power efforts; in October the company announced that their latest plans to build 200 MW of solar power in the country, in addition to the two 20 MW solar farms currently in operation in the Sichuan province. Google, meanwhile, is investing extensively in solar panel and wind turbine infrastructure while Microsoft has stepped up by signing contracts to purchase electricity from wind farms.

Apple and Google were ranked highly for their environmental efforts in Greenpeace’s “Click Clean” report, with Microsoft in the middle of the pack. One giant that has drawn the ire of the environmental advocacy group is Amazon. While the online retail powerhouse has supposedly “committed” to using 100 percent renewable energy, Greenpeace asserts that this figure isn’t verifiable in any meaningful way because of Amazon’s continual lack of operational transparency. The company continues to rapidly expand in Virginia (increasing its energy demand by approximately 200 MW), where local utilities service the grid with only two per cent renewables.

These companies can, however, take steps to push recalcitrant utility monopolies towards more sustainable practices by banding together to throw their weight around in the political sphere.

Despite being armed with the best of intentions, large technology companies cannot move to “100 per cent” renewable power if they continue to connect to the larger electrical grid. There is no grid system in the world that has successfully substituted dirty fossil fuel power with anywhere close to 100 per cent solar and wind.  These companies can, however, take steps to push recalcitrant utility monopolies towards more sustainable practices by banding together to throw their weight around in the political sphere.

This is already starting to happen with Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which counts Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos among its principals. Breakthrough Energy plans to invest in new innovations and the expansion of current solutions related to the production of clean electricity. The nonprofit organization Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) has launched the Future of Internet Power, which is another grouping of major market players, including online marketplace eBay, computing giant HP, professional networking site LinkedIn and security firm Symantec, and aims to help tech companies obtain renewable energy.

According to Direct Energy, one of North America’s largest energy suppliers, the energy sector alone contributes nearly 40 percent of all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions. The bulk of these emissions result from the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity making this, as shared by WWF, the single human activity with the largest impact on the atmosphere.  It’s imperative that Internet companies – as their energy appetites only increase – begin to honestly assess their impact on the planet.

The large businesses that dominate the online landscape can play a critical part in reducing the environmental cost of business. Besides the immediate impacts of their corporate activities, these companies often have famous and charismatic leaders who can promote clean energy among their peers, competitors and would-be emulators. With billions of dollars in capital and the willingness to shake things up, today’s major Internet players have the power to lead us all into a greener future.

Emma Bailey is a writer in the greater Chicago area who covers technology, entertainment, and business. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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