Greening the Cloud With Renewable Energy

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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 based on what energy sources the service uses.

Data centers use up to 3 percent of all U.S. electricity and the information iechnology 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.

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 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 have 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 — was among the first corporations to make a 100 percent renewable energy commitment several years ago.

Google has also done a lot of work with clean energy on its campus. It installed the largest corporate solar energy system of its kind with 1.7 megawatts of capacity in 2007 at its Mountain View, California, campus. Google also operates a 970-kilowatt cogeneration system powered by local landfill gas that produces heat and electricity for its campus. 

Corporate Use of Renewable Energy

Tech companies are not alone in their use of renewable energy. When President Trump announced that the United States would back out of the Paris climate deal, many U.S. corporations voluntarily committed to increasing their use of clean energy while reducing emissions to maintain their Paris commitments.

“You’re definitely not seeing corporations slow down their appetite for renewables under Trump — if anything, demand continues to grow,” said Malcolm Woolf, senior vice president for policy at Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy business group. “And it means that many utilities increasingly have to evolve to satisfy this demand.”

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.

Last year, 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 have announced the largest capacity corporate renewable energy deals.

The cost of wind and solar energy has come down 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 use of renewable energy is largely economic, although pressure from consumers and nonprofit organizations has helped fuel this trend. 

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. Economics promises cheaper renewable energy, but the pace needs to be accelerated by large firms embrace of wind, wave, and solar generation.

“If we can show utilities that the demand is there, that could convince regulators to expand these programs and allow access for smaller companies,” said Rob Threlkeld, global manager for renewable energy at General Motors.

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Sarah Lozanova
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Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is a renewable energy and sustainability journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Earth911, Home Power, Triple Pundit, CleanTechnica, The Ecologist, GreenBiz, Renewable Energy World and Windpower Engineering. Lozanova also works with several corporate clients as a public relations writer to gain visibility for renewable energy and sustainability achievements.
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