Big Tech Races to Clean Act as Cloud Energy Consumption Rises
While the far north of Sweden may seem like a remote location for a data center, Facebook’s decision to pick the region has more to do with the climate than its proximity to mainland cities.
By choosing the coastal town of Luleå for what will soon be 100,000 square meters of servers, the social media group will be able to reduce both the energy required to cool its servers and its greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon emissions from the technology infrastructure and data servers that enable cloud computing now exceed those of pre-Covid air travel, according to a report from The Shift Project, a French think tank. And the annual electricity consumption of just five tech groups – Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple – is about as much as New Zealands, over 45 terawatt hours.
This figure will only increase as more cloud services are adopted and the growth of artificial intelligence and machine learning will demand more computing power. Estimates from the Shift Project suggest that technology-related emissions are increasing by 6% per year and that public pressure is pushing some companies to act.
But while the biggest cloud computing companies have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions, critics say these efforts are insufficient, with the growing adoption of cloud services increasing the industry’s footprint.
“The problem isn’t just Amazon’s carbon footprint, it’s how our entire digital system works,” says Hugues Ferreboeuf, project manager at The Shift Project.
The increasing digitization of businesses, including the increase in work from home induced by Covid, has increased the demand for cloud computing. Data centers – buildings that store data to build the cloud – account for 15% of the IT industry’s digital footprint, according to The Shift Project.
“The infrastructure for cloud services is massive and there are still many coal-fired data centers,” said Simon Ponsford, managing director of cloud management platform YellowDog and founder of a green index to measure footprint. carbon data centers.
Microsoft emitted around 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gases last year, Google 1.5 million tonnes and Amazon 44 million tonnes, according to Green peace, an environmental lobby group.
“Until cloud companies change their business models to stop relying on double-digit growth in energy consumption, the problem will not be resolved,” says Ferreboeuf.
However, Big Tech groups say they are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Google is committed to power all of its data centers and campuses with “carbon-free energy” – like hydropower, wind and solar – around the clock, by 2030. Microsoft is committed to being “carbon negative” by 2030, which means it will get more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than it emits.
Amazon aims to reach “net zero” by 2040, buying more clean energy, investing in electric vehicles and buying “offsets” or carbon credits to offset remaining emissions.
Still, “net-zero” engagement poses problems, according to David Mytton, a senior research affiliate at Uptime Institute, an organization that advises on digital infrastructure. While businesses can achieve “net zero” goals by purchasing clean energy from other businesses, they are not reducing the amount of dirty energy they produce themselves, he notes.
“The purchase of credits has no direct impact on climate change,” admits Rolf Skar, campaign manager at Greenpeace.
And while some compensation contracts – called power purchase agreements – are tied to specific renewable energy projects, others are not, including the most commonly used Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). . “There is a risk of being accused of ‘greenwashing’ if you only use RECs, because the cost of CERs is too low to generate new renewable supply,” Mytton says.
To fill this gap, some companies have sought to set up renewable energy systems for 100% of their energy and to invest directly in renewable infrastructure. Google’s renewable energy commitment for 2030 aims to match its energy use with renewables on an hourly basis.
“What Google is trying to do should have a ripple effect on utilities and businesses [more widely]Skar says, adding that Google’s research into geothermal, batteries and hydrogen technologies could help the company develop its green capabilities.
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At present, however, only 5% of the world’s electricity grid uses renewable energy, according to a 2020 BP report, Major Oil.
Other energy-efficient measures – such as installing new data centers in cold climates and developing technologies to power the centers when wind turbines and solar panels are down – are therefore also needed.
Mytton argues that Big Tech has an interest in using greener energy. “At the end of the day, renewables are a lot cheaper, and since electricity is the main cost of the data center, it can be a lot cheaper. [for a company] to invest in solar and wind power, ”he said.
But the problem is, with cheaper services, there is more demand and more data centers.
“One way to reduce the growth in energy consumption would be for each individual to refrain from consuming unnecessary cloud services,” explains Ferreboeuf, “which is quite tricky because everything relies on cloud computing these days. “