What Color Is the Cloud?

Greenpeace has released a report titled How Dirty is your Data? which looks at the energy choices powering cloud computing.  Based on 2007 data the report claims that if the cloud is compared to nations across the globe it would be the fifth largest consumer of electricity.  The cloud would rank ahead of every nation except the US, China, Russia, and Japan.

The definition of the cloud may be a bit ambiguous.  A general understanding of the cloud is synonymous with the internet as a whole.  The IT sector generally distinguishes the term cloud as services that are provided via the internet but are distinct and different from the internet as a whole.  The Greenpeace report uses cloud “to describe energy and resources used broadly with online services,” while distinguishing the term from cloud computing, “a type of IT computing services for hire within the online ecosystem.”

Data centers and the server farms that they house are central to the energy consumption of the cloud.  If you use an email service like Gmail, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, or a social media site like Facebook or Twitter you are part of the energy and emissions footprint of the cloud.  Greenpeace has a presence on Facebook and multiple Twitter accounts.

The report brings attention to what kind of energy is powering the data centers.  The energy is comprised of the same sources as the grid at large.  This means that dirty sources comprise the vast majority of generation.  Apple is preparing to open a data center in North Carolina which the report claims “is estimated to require as much 100MW of power, equivalent to about 80,000 US homes or 250,000 EU homes”.  The local grid is comprised of less than 5% clean energy, “with the remaining 95 percent coming from dirty, dangerous sources like coal and nuclear”, according to the report.

Greenpeace has campaigned to get Facebook to “unfriend” coal.  Facebook’s continuing growth has them targeted as the company that will get more of their energy from coal, which currently accounts for over 53% of their energy, than any other in the report.  The report shows Yahoo! as the least dependent, getting 18.3% of their energy from coal.

The IT industry as a whole and the cloud specifically are symbolic of the energy source problem facing the globe.  The cloud comprises a communication system allowing us to share knowledge.  Knowledge comprises the foundation for meaningful change.

Photo Credit: Sugree Phatanapherom