The Green Internet
Major tech companies are working to power the Internet with renewable energy.
Within the next year, about 60 new wind turbines are scheduled to begin whirling above flat farmland in the state of Indiana, generating roughly the amount of electricity 46,000 American homes use annually. However, that electricity won’t run televisions or dishwashers. Instead, the wind farm’s energy will be used by Amazon Web Services, which provides cloud computing services to Fortune 500 companies; popular websites such as Netflix, Spotify and Pinterest; and, a number of government agencies.
The Indiana facility advances Amazon’s commitment “to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for the global Amazon Web Services infrastructure footprint,” says a company spokesperson. With it, Amazon has joined Apple, Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Rackspace, Microsoft and other major tech companies working to completely power the Internet with renewable energy. This is known as the “green Internet.”
The Internet has transformed the way we live. However, there has been a significant environmental cost in terms of the enormous amounts of electricity required to power the data centers and telecom networks that make up the “cloud.” Much of that electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels that emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
One indication of the Internet’s environmental impact comes from a 2014 study by Greenpeace International, “Clicking Clean: How Companies Are Creating the Green Internet,” which estimates that the “rapid growth of the cloud and our use of the Internet have produced a collective electricity demand that would currently rank in the top six if compared alongside countries; that electricity demand is expected to increase by 60 percent or more by 2020 as the online population and our reliance on the Internet steadily increase.”
While equating the energy usage of the cloud and the Internet to one of the world’s largest countries may seem startling, a comprehensive tally would be even bigger, says Gary Cook, lead author of the “Clicking Clean” study.
“The sixth largest country estimate counts just the data centers and the telecom networks that connect each of the data centers—what we’re loosely calling the cloud,” says Cook. “That does not include devices. If we were to add the energy use associated with devices into the overall mix, the energy use would almost double, so we’d be talking about a much bigger country, energy-wise.”
Tech companies have adopted a number of renewable energy initiatives, with the “Clicking Clean” study singling out “six major cloud brands—Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Rackspace—(that) have committed to a goal of powering data centers with 100 percent renewable energy and are providing the early signs of the promise and potential impact of a renewably powered Internet.” Apple has built four solar farms and now runs all of its data centers on renewable energy. Google minimizes electricity usage at its data centers by locating them in areas where natural climate resources can offset the heat produced by its computer servers. For instance, a Google data center in Hamina, Finland, is cooled by seawater drawn from the Gulf of Finland.
Google, which has been carbon neutral (no net emissions) since 2007, also provides detailed information on its energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts—something Greenpeace considers vital.
“We feel companies are serious when they announce a new project and, at the same time, also announce how they are going to meet that additional energy demand with renewable energy,” says Cook.
The “Clicking Clean” study has also praised Facebook, noting that the company “continues to prove its commitment to build a green Internet, with its decision to locate a data center in Iowa driving the largest purchase of wind turbines in the world.” The study also cited joint efforts by Apple, Facebook and Google that resulted in the largest utility in the United States, North Carolina-based Duke Energy, adopting policies that opened the market to renewable electricity purchases for large-scale customers.
Individual Internet users can also make a difference, says Cook.
“There certainly are things consumers can do,” he says. “You can choose products that are energy efficient, and really think about whether you need a new model every two years. It’s also important that consumers keep pushing companies to do more with renewable energy.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.