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Greenpeace Warns of Data Center Emissions in Cloud Computing Set Ups

By Kenneth Corbin (Send Email)
Posted Apr 1, 2010


The environmental activist group Greenpeace is warning that the emergence of cloud computing technologies could lead to a massive spike in carbon emissions. It is calling on IT firms to make clean energy a priority as they open new datacenters to handle the glut of data moving to the cloud. The environmental activist group is sounding an alarm about the carbon footprint created in the transition to cloud computing. It urges IT firms to opt for renewables when they open new data centers.

The group, famed for harassing whaling ships on the high seas and staging protests at nuclear power plants, released its latest report on the eve of the commercial release of Apple's iPad, one of the "quintessential cloud-computing devices" that are reshaping the way people interact with information. As a consequence, IT firms find themselves having to open new facilities to handle the glut of data people are storing and sharing in the cloud, and face the choice of powering them with clean, renewable energy sources such as water, or the often cheaper coal-based power.

"To be clear: We are not picking on Apple. We are not dissing the iPad," the group said. "But maybe someone can come up with an app that calculates the carbon footprint of using different Web sites based on their location and energy deals."

The report (available in PDF format here) estimates that the global power consumption of datacenters and telecom providers will balloon to 1,963 billion kilowatt hours by 2020, more than three times the current rate.

"The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern," the group said in its report. "For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That 'somewhere' is datacenters -- massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy."

Greenpeace is not arguing against the cloud. Rather, the group is appealing to cloud providers such as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) to only work with clean-energy suppliers, and to advocate for policies that would see carbon emissions peak n 2015, and gradually recede as enterprises migrate to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

In the United States, the energy debate has been on the back burner amid the year-long fight over health-care reform, though any effort to set carbon-emissions caps and penalize companies for exceeding them will face significant opposition from House and Senate Republicans, as well as some Democrats, who worry about the chilling effect such measures could have on businesses as they try to nurse the nurse the economy back to health.

But for Greenpeace, IT firms don't need to wait for legislation to do their part to curb emissions. The group offered Facebook's recent announcement of plans to build a datacenter in Oregon as a case study. That datacenter will be powered by PacificCorp, a utility Greenpeace says produces most of its electricity from coal-fired power stations.

In contrast, when Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) was scouting for a location for a new datacenter, it opted for Buffalo, N.Y., and teamed with a utility that nets most of its electricity from hydroelectric energy.

"Efficiency is a hot topic in IT, but improving energy efficiency is only part of the solution -- the industry also needs to take responsibility for where it gets its energy from in the first place," the group said. "Simply put: Will the cloud run on coal or renewable energy?"

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