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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Greening The Internet Cloud

Air Date: Week of

Internet use and the demand for storage in the cloud are soaring. A new report from Greenpeace looks at data storage companies and their energy use. Gary Cook, an IT analyst at Greenpeace, tells host Bruce Gellerman that companies like Apple should be transparent about their energy use and invest more in renewable energy. One company, Akamai, ranks high on energy transparency in Greenpeace’s report. Nicole Peill-Moelter is Akamai’s Director of Sustainability. She says Akamai wants to help other businesses be more efficient but the company knows firsthand that affordable renewable energy is not always available on a large scale.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. The exponential growth in digital data: photos, email, videos, corporate, governmental, and personal records have been soaring like a rocket. To keep up with the demand to store, manipulate and manage all those gajillion gigabytes, we’ve increasingly turned to the cloud: vast, often remote sites made up of millions of computer servers that use prodigious amounts of energy.

Now, Greenpeace wants cloud companies to come clean on their energy use and has issued a new report rating how well they do. Greenpeace Senior IT Analyst Gary Cook is author of the study: How Green is your Cloud?

COOK: At a global level our estimates show that the electricity demand of the cloud would rank among countries, it would make it the fifth largest electricity consumer in the world, equivalent to the amount of emissions from airline travel. And what we did our report for was to really try to shine a light on which companies are doing well in terms of powering their platforms with renewable energy and those who maybe aren’t doing quite so well. Because there are lots of claims about how green the cloud is, but we think it’s really important to look at companies and how they’re performing.

GELLERMAN: Well the cloud is also growing very rapidly.

COOK: That’s very true. If these companies, who are some of the most innovative in the world, embrace the challenge to power their platforms with renewable energy, they would be leading the charge for all of us to have clean energy. If they go in the other direction, they can actually be holding us back and making investments that could be extending the life of coal plants and making investments that are going to slow down the transition to renewable energy.

GELLERMAN: Well I’m looking at your scorecard here. So you rate them in terms of their amount of coal and nuclear power they get. Of course, four variables: energy transparency, infrastructure citing, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation and renewables and advocacies, and none of them do really well. You gave no straight A’s, you didn’t give any straight B’s either, a lot of D’s and F’s.

COOK: That’s true. On the plus side, we have seen significant improvement since we put out a similar report last year. On the downside, we see many companies growing very quickly and building in locations that are going to be largely powered by coal and other sources of dirty energy, so quite a bit of room for improvement.

GELLERMAN: You really take Apple to task, you say that their cloud storage facilities, their new ones in North Carolina, are, you know, really not very clean at all.

COOK: Apple is one of the most innovative and popular companies in the world. They challenge us all to think different. In the past, and what we’ll see in the future is, accept that challenge with regard to its energy use for its cloud. And so, what they need to be doing is demanding better from Duke Energy who has a number of coal plants very close by, that use mountain-top removal coal from Appalachia. And they’re a big customer, they have the ability to demand better, to demand that Duke think different and provide them clean energy.

GELLERMAN: There are of course companies, say, like Amazon, which does all its business, basically, on the cloud, and they say: Hey, we save a lot of trips to the store, you know, digital books – we save trees.

COOK: We view the INC sector as a critical partner in driving a clean energy economy, you know, using video conferencing instead of transportation or do-it-online rather than having to do it in the real world. But it’s important that we get this investment right, because we are going to continue to rely upon it more and more and it’s a significant power demand.

GELLERMAN: So, how green is the Greenpeace cloud?

COOK: So Greenpeace has adopted a global commitment to move its IT services to be powered by green energy as fast as we can, and have been contacting our providers, many of whom are included in the evaluation, we released this week to understand the amount of renewable energy they are using and make sure that we can power, fully power, our cloud services from clean energy.

GELLERMAN: One of the companies that you rate is Akamai. It’s one of the largest cloud service and data delivery companies in the world, and Gary I’m going to speak to Akamai after our conversation, have you got a question for them, because you rank them on this report.

COOK: We gave them one of our few A’s in this evaluation because of their transparency. They have really the only company who is reporting the amount of carbon across their network. Ask them: Are they going to get other companies to do the same?

GELLERMAN: Gary Cook is author of Greenpeace International’s new study: How Green is your Cloud?

GELLERMAN: Well, as mentioned, Akamai is one of the cloud companies ranked in the study. At any given time, up to 30 percent of all internet traffic is carried on Akamai’s cloud computing network.

In Hawaiian, Akamai means clever or smart, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s the only company Greenpeace gave an A for ‘energy transparency.’ It’s the only company that measures the energy used at its cloud data centers, in terms of carbon emissions. Nicole Peill-Moelter is director of environmental sustainability at Akamai. I put Gary Cook’s question to her: What was Akamai doing to get other cloud companies to do the same thing?

PEILL-MOELTER: It's a great question and I think it has to be answered by each company on their own. They have to make their own decisions about how transparent they want to be with their data. Akamai felt that it was important for us to be transparent because we could help other companies understand that metric-ing their energy and carbon emissions is actually a way to make their operations more efficient.

GELLERMAN: But you did get a D in renewables and advocacy.

PEILL-MOELTER: Yes. We own and operate our own servers. We currently have one hundred thousand of them and they reside in seventy-five countries and third-party data centers. We don’t control the operations of those data centers and we don’t have anywhere to cite our own renewable energy. We want to start working with our data center partners to better understand how their operations can become more efficient, because we feel like energy efficiency is probably where we’re going to get the biggest impact. It reduces cost so it’s a natural for businesses to adopt.

GELLERMAN: Well, can’t you choose your data center partners? You’re a big company.

PEILL-MOELTER: We certainly can. But to be honest there aren’t a lot of data center providers out there who use, who actually do on-site renewables, because data centers tend to use megawatts of power and you can’t really put solar panels on a data center to provide even a tiny fraction of that power consumption. So usually what we see is where it’s available, our data partners can purchase the renewable energies off of the grid.

GELLERMAN: Well, I don’t know about the renewables, though, Microsoft is going to get one hundred percent of its energy from renewables in the UK and Ireland. They’ve got new data farms there and Facebook says they’re building one in Sweden. So I guess it is possible.

PEILL-MOELTER: It certainly is possible. Akamai doesn’t have the scale that these other companies that you mentioned do, so we have to sort of work within the business parameters, what’s right for Akamai, and we certainly have to proactively look for those opportunities where they make sense for the business.

GELLERMAN: I was looking at some statistics and one that really caught my eye was this one. It says that by 2020, there’s going to be a fifty-fold increase in data that will be stored in the cloud. That’s mind boggling, you know, talk about clouds, these are storm clouds. How can you handle all of that data and do it in an environmentally conscious, sustainable way? Can it be done?

PEILL-MOELTER: Yes, and I think that that is the question that Greenpeace is asking. You can’t get to carbon neutrality with energy efficiency. What needs to happen is we need to go to less carbon-intensive electricity. What we’re seeing is the states are going to a higher level up of, through the renewable portfolio standards, meaning they have to each want to have a different mix of renewables in its electricity portfolio. In California it’s thirty percent by 2020. Texas and, I believe, Massachusetts have aggressive targets as well. What we’re hoping is that as there’s a bigger patchwork of these targets and standards among the states, at some point the federal government will say ‘We need to standardize on a, at least, a baseline level for renewable energy.’

GELLERMAN: Do I hear you asking for federal regulation?

PEILL-MOELTER: (Laughs). I think I would like to see the federal government take some leadership in this insofar as overall energy policy. What I hear a lot is that businesses are asking for some certainty around what is the price of carbon, what will be my future price of electricity? Then they can adapt their strategies. I think it’s inevitable that we’re marching towards carbon-free energy. I heard recently that it’s a seven trillion dollar industry globally and it’d be nice for the U.S. to take a leadership role in that and get a decent size chunk of that. I think that might solve our economic woes and certainly our jobs problems.

GELLERMAN: So, kind of every cloud has a green lining.

PEILL-MOELTER: Every cloud has a green lining, yes. Green both in dollars and environmental (laughs).

GELLERMAN: Well, Nicole, thank you so very much.

PEILL-MOELTER: Thank you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Nicole Peill- Moelter is director of environmental sustainability at Akamai. Now, we should note Apple, which scored low in the Greenpeace cloud study, disputes many of the findings about its reliance on coal and nuclear power. Apple plans to build America’s largest privately owned solar facility to power its new cloud computing center in North Carolina. It will be built on-site, on land around the massive building.



Greenpeace Report: How Green is Your Cloud?

Greenpeace Website

Akamai Website


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