As the web moves to the cloud, more and more of us are asking what powers the data centers that fuel our browsing. How much carbon is being consumed when you stream from Netflix, surf Youtube or weigh in on “what color is this dress?” And is there a way to take some of the pressure off of the grid – and off of the climate?
Those are questions Greenpeace began asking several years ago, says senior policy analyst Gary Cook. “The IT sector has a huge energy footprint,” says Cook, “and it was growing very rapidly. If you aggregate all the demand of electricity from the cloud, for the data centers and the networks, ranking among countries, we would rank in about 5th or 6th in the world. So it’s quite significant.”
As a result, Greenpeace issued a challenge to Silicon Valley companies to reduce their carbon consumption, and began grading corporations like Apple, Microsoft and Google on their progress. They started things off with a campaign for Facebook to “unfriend coal” – a campaign waged on Facebook’s own pages.
Facebook subsequently committed to go 100% renewable; other IT companies soon followed suit. Many now employ fulltime sustainability directors to keep them on the green and narrow. They’re tasked with reducing the company’s carbon footprint on all fronts, from siting to power sourcing to monitoring the life of the gadgets they sell. Several of these ‘designated pests,’ along with Greenpeace’s Cook, joined host Greg Dalton recently for a Climate One forum on keeping Silicon Valley green.
One company that has gotten low grades from Greenpeace is eBay. But, as eBay’s Global Director for Green Lori Duvall explains, the company is taking steps to improve its grade even as it grows exponentially. “A lot of effort went into data center consolidation,” she says, “really pushing the envelope on how you measure the efficiency, not just of the entire building that houses the entire data center, but actually looking at what kind of work your data center is doing and how you can optimize.
“You know, when you buy something on eBay how much carbon does that use? How can we change our coding infrastructure to make things more efficient?”
Christina Page of Yahoo! says that despite corporate ups and downs, they have made strides in lowering their energy use. “In 2008, in the middle of the recession, we built and designed our most efficient and energy and water efficient data center to date,” she reports. “It runs on about 40% less energy than a conventional data center does. “ How did they do it? This high-tech company found a surprisingly low-tech solution: they opened the windows. “Basically, it’s a passively cooled data center,” Page explains,
“It’s a long narrow building, looks kind of like a chicken coop. And we opened the windows 90% of the year.”
But as Bill Weihl, Sustainability Guru for Facebook, points out, it’s not just about lowering the footprint of large corporations. “In the end we have to decarbonize the grid if we’re going to deal with climate change. And that means we need utilities and other companies that use energy to change what they are doing.” To that end, Facebook and other companies are working together to identify and implement policies that would make it easier for corporations to buy renewable energy. Using their collective economic clout doesn’t hurt the cause. “That’s a place where we have real power in the marketplace,” Weihl notes.
Gary Cook says Greenpeace has noticed a surprising trend: in red states across the country, tea partyers are joining with environmentalists to advocate for renewable power. “From the governor’s office on down, everyone wants to be the one that gets Facebook or Microsoft or whoever to come to their state,” says Cook. “That’s a big win for them politically, it creates jobs, adds to the tax base. So it’s real opportunity.”
In other words, green energy isn’t just for lefties anymore – it’s become a team effort. “They’re really tired of the utility bills going up and up, and they want clean energy,” Cook says. “They’re actually pushing from the right and from the left for the same thing, which is great.”
In 2012, Ebay teamed up with Republican lawmakers and local stakeholders to help change Utah law, deregulating the power grid and making alternate power sources a possibility. “Now you can buy clean power,” says Duvall. “Not just us, but anybody in Utah.
“It really shows you have to stay flexible in these conversations,” she continues, “whether it’s taking the business case to the CFO or taking the kind of broader societal business impact story to a red state legislator. There are a lot of good reasons to make these changes. It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do for the climate. That’s a great reason, but it’s not always the reason that motivates everybody.”
Whether motivated by consumer pressure, bottom line or the fear of getting a ‘D’ on its Greenpeace report card, companies in the IT sector appear to be working toward a cleaner, greener digital world. To see how they’re doing, track their progress at Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean website.