Streaming music and movies over the internet may seem more eco-friendly than stocking up on CDs and DVDs. After all, you’re saving the plastic needed to make the physical media, the trees needed to print the liner notes, and the gasoline needed to ship all those discs across the country. But there’s a hidden cost to online streaming: the coal needed to power the computer data centers that deliver all that content.
Last year, Greenpeace estimated that within two years, information technology will take up between seven and 12 percent of all electrical use. About 21 percent of that will come from data centers. The good news is that this year, the biggest tech players inched closer to creating a green internet. But there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done. And because it’s unlikely that the incoming Trump administration will push renewable energy forward on its own, the giants of the internet carry more responsibility than ever.
Beyond Carbon Offsets
Apple claims that 93 of its worldwide operations are now powered by renewable energy sources, and Google claims it will hit 100 percent renewable energy next year. The other big players are further behind, but they’re also investing heavily in renewable power. Facebook, according to its most recent report, estimates that 35 percent of its data center electricity comes from renewable sources. Amazon says that it will hit 40 renewable power by the end of the year. And Microsoft says its data centers are at 44 percent now.
These numbers might be confusing, especially since both Google and Microsoft also claim to be “carbon neutral.” That’s because both companies, in addition to buying renewable energy, also buy what are called carbon offset credits. Carbon offset credits don’t necessarily stop fossil fueling from being burned. Instead, the money is pumped into some sort of project that will, in theory, cancel out the environmental cost of burning coal in one part of the world. The funds may go towards buying clean energy, but they can also go towards planting trees or improving the energy efficiency of old buildings. Critics, such as environmental journalist George Monbiot, have long called compared them to religious indulgences—a way to sooth a guilty conscience without actually changing behaviors.
Carbon offset credits don’t necessarily stop fossil fueling from being burned.
The largest internet companies are now pursing projects to purchase renewable energy to power their data centers more directly. There are several ways to do this, but the most obvious one—installing solar panels or wind turbines on their data centers—is not usually a reasonable option. “Large renewable energy projects should be developed where they are most productive and cost-effective—which is usually miles away from where our data centers are best located,” Google director of global infrastructure Gary Demasi explained in a blog post last February.
Instead, companies prefer to buy wholesale energy from wind and solar farms and have that energy delivered to their data centers via the regional power grid. But as Google explains in a recent report, this is an option usually only available in Europe due to wholesale energy regulations. Instead, these companies often buy what are called “tariffs.” Essentially, this means that the local energy utility agrees to buy enough energy from renewable sources to meet the needs of its client. This is better than carbon credit offsets because it guarantees that power that might otherwise have come from fossil fuels will come from renewable sources instead. In many cases, these sorts of deals encourage the construction of new renewable power plants to meet the demands of companies. The new plants increase the amount of renewable power for everyone.
The benefits are economic as well as environmental. According to Google’s report, renewable energy is now sometimes the cheapest form of energy available. But perhaps more importantly from a business perspective, the prices are more consistent because wind and sunshine aren’t subject to the same sorts of market swings.
Not Green Yet
The catch is that coal-generated electricity still courses through these big data centers. Although tech companies can buy renewable energy and have it fed into the grid, they can’t control which energy ends up in their data centers. Nor would it be practical, at this point, to depend solely on renewable energy. Although renewable power is now, according to Google, almost always the most stable source of power in terms of price, it’s not stable in terms of availability. Put simply: the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Fossil fuels are still necessary to guarantee the constant flow of power.
Another big problem with the energy status quo is that there’s simply not enough renewable energy available for sale in some parts of the country and world. To make up for this, companies like Google simply buy more renewable energy in places where it’s available to offset their use in areas where renewable energy is scarce. But much like carbon offset credits, this means that coal and other fossil fuels are still supplying the majority of the power that tech companies use in some places.
Virginia, in particular, is a big problem. Approximately 70 percent of all internet traffic passes through the state, according to Greenpeace. But the regional electrical utility, Dominion Energy, is heavily dependent on coal, and according to Greenpeace, makes purchasing renewable energy tariffs prohibitively expensive.
The situation is getting better. Amazon backed the construction of a new solar farm in Accomack County, Virginia. The company estimates it will crank out about 210,000 megawatts of power next year. But Greenpeace analyst Gary Cook says that’s not enough enough to keep up with the growth in the region, let alone replace the existing demand for electricity. The other problem for the green internet is the gear that actually sits in those data centers. Much of it is manufactured overseas, in factories that the ultimate customers have little control over.
All of these problems are solvable. Dumping coal and other fossil fuels from the energy mix will require better electrical storage systems. There are several competing ideas on the market already, and surely more to come. Given that the next administration will probably be less keen on funding renewable energy research, it will be up to the internet giants and utilities to invest in this research themselves.
Tech companies are already putting pressure on state regulators and utilities to make it easier for customers to buy clean energy, but Greenpeace’s Cook says they should increase their efforts. “We need to see advocacy to go along with their procurement,” he says.
Finally, companies can take a more active role in sourcing hardware for their data centers. Apple announced earlier this year that its pressuring its supply chain partners to commit to using renewable energy. Others should follow this example.