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Amazon, Apple, Microsoft using dirty electrons, says Greenpeace

How clean is your Internet surfing? We're not talking about porn here – we're talking about where the energy comes from to power the websites that you visit. Greenpeace has just released a report singling out those companies that use dirty energy to power their immense server farms, and praising those who are switching to green energy. So, who comes out on top?

The energy to power your home computer is relatively minimal. But so many people use popular web services such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo that these companies have to construct huge buildings with vast arrays of powerful computers to serve everyone's needs. These datacentres require huge amounts of energy, which makes the source of that energy really important for the environment. In 2007, datacentres across the world used enough energy from electricity companies burning fossil fuels to release around 116 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That represented roughly a fifth of Canada's total carbon emissions at the time.

Greenpeace wants data centres to use clean energy from renewable resources such as wind and solar. But it says that many companies are actively chasing down cheaper, dirtier energy sources. It singled out Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon as companies running on a greater proportion of dirty energy than others. Conversely, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have been making strides towards clean energy in their data centres, the report said.

Although Facebook has in the past place data centres in areas that rely heavily on coal power (such as North Carolina), it has since chosen Sweden for its giant computing centres, the report revealed. Sweden has a far better track record on clean energy.

And yet “three of the largest IT companies building their business around the cloud – Amazon, Apple and Microsoft – are all rapidly expanding without adequate regard to source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds," said the report.

In areas such as Chicago and Virginia, where the likes of Microsoft and Amazon are locating their data centre, renewable energy resources are relatively limited, due in part to the pro-coal stance of utilities such as Duke Energy, and the weak political status of the renewables sector.

Apple, too, has invested heavily in North Carolina, pumping at least $1 billion into a data centre there, and Greenpeace condemned its lack of transparency.

Significantly, Apple responded to the Greenpeace report. It said that its data centre in North Carolina would consume around 20 MW at full capacity (a fifth of Greenpeace's estimate). But Greenpeace openly disagrees with Apple's figures, based on the average industry power consumption per million dollars spent, and per square foot of data centre space. “While we welcome Apple's attempt today to provide more specific details on its North Carolina I data centre, it does not appear to have provided the full story, and is instead seeking to provide select pieces of information to make their dirty energy footprints in smaller," sniped Greenpeace.

It seems that the least parts of the IT community are working harder to make their energy green. There have been some interesting developments in the past few years. For example, IBM used the excess heat from one of its data centres to heat a local swimming pool. And some companies are building their data centres close to the Arctic Circle because the cooler temperatures mean that it takes less energy to cool down data centre computers. Cooling systems take up roughly a third of the electricity in most data centres.

Still, we have a long way to go. When you choose your online email provider, music streaming service, or streaming TV site, do you think about where the energy comes from? Do you care?

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets



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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.