Girl holding tablet computer with wind turbines

Despite serving a valuable purpose to us all, tech companies have been criticized for years for their exorbitant energy consumption. Data centers are the backbone of the internet and keeping all that information just a click away requires a lot of electricity.

A transition to renewable sources is underway, which cloud users can encourage by choosing their online service providers that source clean energy.

The ‘Dirty Cloud’

Data centers use up to 3 percent of all U.S. electricity and the information technology sector is responsible for 7 percent of global electricity consumption. The term “dirty cloud” was even coined to refer to the coal and other high-emissions fuel sources that power cloud computing. Global internet traffic has tripled in the last four years and it is anticipated to triple again by 2022, according to the International Energy Association

The IT sector isn’t keeping up with its rapid growth,” says Gary Cook, the senior corporate campaigner on the Climate & Energy for Greenpeace. “More companies are making renewable energy commitments but energy demand growth by the industry is outstripping their renewable energy growth. This is an urgent issue to address the use of fossil fuels given the climate crisis.”

Since 2009, Greenpeace has been putting pressure on some of the more polluting tech companies while praising greener ones. When examining the energy footprint of tech companies, some clearly lead the way in the corporate use of renewable energy deployment, energy transparency, advocacy, and energy efficiency innovations. 

The Greenest Internet Companies

Apple, Google, WhatsApp, Instagram, iTunes, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook all received high scores in the 2017 Clicking Clean report by Greenpeace.

Amazon, eBay, Etsy, HBO, Netflix, and Vimeo received mediocre scores from Greenpeace, while Hulu, Pandora, Pinterest, SoundCloud, Twitter, and WeChat received poor ratings because they rely heavily on coal, fracked gas, and other unsustainable energy sources.

In addition to sourcing renewable energy, the highest-ranking companies have also put in place energy efficiency improvements to cut overall use in the business. There has also been a shift in recent years towards larger, more efficient data centers. Higher server utilization rates, that is, getting more from each watt of power expended, and improved data center design has reduced the energy required for non-computing purposes such as equipment cooling. This has helped slow the growth of data center energy consumption.

Google Leads the Way in Clean Energy

Google is the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy globally. It has been involved in numerous utility-scale wind and solar energy projects across the globe. Google — along with Facebook and Apple — were among the first corporations to make a 100 percent renewable energy commitment several years ago.

One big obstacle for Google is the ability to source renewable energy in certain markets. In some areas, utility business models and restrictive government policies limit the availability of renewable energy. This is certainly the case in “Data Center Alley” in Northern Virginia, the highest concentration of data centers in the world. The growth of Data Center Alley is causing a spike in local electricity demand.

The primary electric utility provider in the area, Dominion Energy, relies almost exclusively on fracked gas, coal, and other fossil fuels. Although Google’s operations in Data Center Alley are relatively new, it has not yet taken steps to add renewable energy to its portfolio to power Virginia data centers.

Meanwhile, Google has been more successful in Taiwan where it announced its first renewable energy project in Asia. Google’s involvement in purchasing power from a regional solar farm required revisions in energy policy to allow non-utilities to purchase power directly.

Corporate Use of Renewable Energy

Large corporations can create power purchase agreements with energy companies to build new solar and wind energy projects. Some retailers, such as Target and Walmart, have also used their roofs to host solar arrays. Although this is an innovative use of empty space, rooftop solar is not possible at all business locations, making power purchase agreements more appealing for most large companies.

In 2017, 19 large corporations announced deals with energy companies to create 2.78 gigawatts of renewable energy generation capacity. In 2018, Microsoft, Facebook, AT&T, and Walmart announced the largest capacity corporate renewable energy deals.

The cost of wind and solar energy has come down significantly in recent years, causing a surge in clean energy demand. Renewable energy has achieved grid parity in many markets. Apple announced that it believes it will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the contract from its $850 million California Flats project.

The surge in corporate renewable energy use is largely economic, although pressure from consumers and nonprofit organizations has helped fuel this trend.  Unfortunately, the availability of clean power varies widely depending on the utility provider. In regulated electricity markets, customers have limited choice in how their power is generated. 

Smaller Companies Left Behind

Although large corporations have taken a leadership role in the renewable energy movement, smaller companies are getting left behind. These companies currently have fewer opportunities to get involved, hindering growth. In these cases, an aggregation model can be successful where companies collectively enter agreements to purchase clean energy.

Continued growth in renewable energy use relies on us speaking up. “IT companies care about what their customers think,” explains Cook. “We’ve seen that with Facebook and Apple setting renewable energy goals that were backed by consumer pressure. Companies need to hear from customers demanding that they care about climate change and to fuel their operations with renewable energy. Customers shouldn’t underestimate the power they have to change investment strategies of companies.”

Editor’s note: Originally published on June 29, 2018, this article was updated in August 2019.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.