Environmental Challenges to Cloud Computing

Environmental Challenges to Cloud Computing

Cloud computing has been popularly considered to be environment-friendly. In fact, I had written an article along those lines, although I had expressed some skepticism on the extravagant claims being made on this issue (See: How Green Is Cloud Computing?). However, a recent report by environment watchdog Greenpeace does raise some questions the industry will have to answer.

According to this report, provocatively titled “How dirty is your data? A Look at the Energy Choices That Power Cloud Computing”, the data centers that power cloud computing account for about 2% of global energy demand and are growing their energy consumption at a rate of about 12% per year. What’s more damning, says Greenpeace, is that most of the energy consumed (50% to 80%) comes from coal and nuclear energy rather than renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

10 top tech brands were put under the scanner – Apple, Facebook, IBM, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo!, HP and Akamai. Of these, Apple scored the lowest while Akamai and Yahoo! were ranked as the most environment-friendly, or rather, the least environment-damaging. None of the companies came out smelling of roses.

The companies were assessed on five parameters – Clean Energy Index, Coal Intensity, Transparency, Infrastructure Siting and Mitigation Strategy. Apple scored miserably with a 6.7% Clean Energy Index (the worst of all 10 companies), a 54.5% Coal Intensity Index (again, the worst), an F for Instructure Siting, and Cs for its Transparency and its Mitigation Strategy.

HP followed close behind with 9.9% Clean Energy Index, 49.4% Coal Intensity Index, D for Infrastructure Siting and Cs for Transparency and Mitigation Strategy. IBM and Facebook were marginally better while Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft made up the middle of the rankings, which were topped off by Yahoo! and Akamai.

While the report was broadly critical of cloud computing, it did recognize some positives like Yahoo! Locating its facilities near clean energy hot spots and using coal-based power for just 18.3% of its portfolio, and Google encouraging wind and solar projects by creating the subsidiary Google Energy that can buy electricity directly from independent renewable power producers.

The report also presented some plausible recommendations, where it asked cloud computing companies to support initiatives like:

  • Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Standards at a national, state or regional level where they have operations or co-location facilities
  • Investment incentives for data centers and internet infrastructure to be powered by renewable energy
  • Regulatory intervention to reduce utilization of dirty energy in grid mix
  • Mechanisms to drive distributed renewable energy generation and clean energy storage
  • Increased R&D and deployment funding of clean energy generation and storage technologies

Greenpeace acknowledged that data centers did reduce energy consumption on other areas but said it was difficult to quantify them. Personally speaking, I do believe that the net energy consumed because of cloud computing is less than with traditional IT, the questions raised by Greenpeace need to be answered.

One of the first steps in this direction would be to move to renewable energy sources from the current dependence of fossil fuels. Some efforts have already been made in this direction, such as Google signing agreements for buying wind energy in Oklahoma and Iowa, and Microsoft looking towards wind energy to power its Dublin data center. Now, these efforts need to be expanded and sustained.

By Sourya Biswas

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