Clouds Are Not So Clean

cloudMore and more of our digital activities are being moved to the cloud – from storing our files with DropBox, looking at photos on Facebook, to video watching on YouTube, and music listening on SoundCloud – we are starting to rely on the cloud for our daily lives. The word “cloud” may evoke ideas of clean and efficient energy, but according to Greenpeace that is not always the case.

The environmental activist group has done a report entitled How Clean Is Your Cloud? which slams Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Twitter for operating dirty clouds. It is not all bad news for cloud systems though, as the report notes that Facebook, Google, and Yahoo! were leading the way to a greener infrastructure. The whole report questions the environmental impact of the whole data centre – from electricity supplier to ecosystem inside and outside those huge server-filled warehouses.

On a positive note – Facebook has constructed its latest data centre in Sweden can be powered entirely by renewable energy, and Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 through carbon offsets, renewable energy purchases, and otehr green initiatives. But other cloud providers were less impressive.

Amazon’s cloud, which is behind a number of cloud-based services, uses coal for about a third of its power and nuclear for another third, with Microsoft using 39.3% coal and 26% nuclear, and Twitter 35.6% coal and 12.8% nuclear. Apple used coal for over half of its electricity needs – one of the dirtiest forms of fuel around. The green credentials of nuclear power is a rather more murky area, but Greenpeace actively opposes its use due to the longevity of the radioactive waste it produces and the risk of disasters such as Fukushima.

Apple responded to the report today in the New York Times, stating that Greenpeace had overestimated Apple’s power consumption – with the company using 20 million watts at full capacity not 100 million as claimed in the report. The scale, however, is less of the issue here than simply where Apple gets its electricity from – coal. The less energy a cloud uses the better, and efficiency is hugely important – but the entire supply chain needs to be addressed to have less environmental impact.

In contrast to Apple’s response, Twitter have accepted that the report raises important considerations around energy efficiency and they would try to do better in the future as the company expands and continues to build up its infrastructure.

Amazon has yet to comment.

Share This