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How green is your cloud?

David Mytton | Dec. 16, 2015
The public clouds run by Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft all claim a commitment to green energy -- but the clear leader in this field may surprise you

With the recent climate talks in Paris, energy consumption is a pressing topic. Unsurprisingly, cloud vendors have touted their infrastructure at scale as a way to reduce IT's carbon footprint due to the efficiencies gained from running such huge deployments.

That doesn't change the reality that data centers remain a large source of carbon emissions through their intense energy and cooling requirements. So when it comes to energy usage and renewables, how do the cloud providers stack up?

AWS has committed to 100 percent renewable energy, but has not offered a date by when it plans to achieve that. As of December 2015, the energy mix across AWS is 25 percent renewable with a plan to reach 40 percent by the end of 2016. This will come from some newly announced generation facilities: wind farms in Fowler Ridge (online in Jan 2016), U.S. East (Dec 2016), and U.S. West (May 2017) -- plus a solar facility in the U.S. East due online in October 2016.

Amazon participates in a number of programs, including Buyer's Principles to help increase purchasing power for low-carbon energy sources (which also includes Microsoft and Google) and the American Council on Renewable Energy.

If you want to be green on AWS now, you have two public regions to choose from that are 100 percent carbon neutral: U.S. West (Oregon) and Frankfurt. AWS's GovCloud region is also carbon neutral.

Google Cloud Platform

Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and now sources its energy from 37 percent renewables, following announcements this month to buy another 842 megawatts of renewable energy. It plans to triple its renewable energy purchases by 2025 on the road to 100 percent renewables (also, no date).

Google purchases green energy directly from on-site renewable facilities but also uses power purchase agreements to pipe renewable energy into the public grid, which it then consumes. It also has a $2.5 billion fund for investment into renewable energy projects and companies.


IBM has pledged support of the American Business Act on Climate, but offers limited information about what it actually achieves, at least compared to the relatively detailed stats provided by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. IBM has pledged to be using 20 percent renewables by 2020 and reduce energy consumption by 35 percent by 2020 (against 2005 as the base year, adjusted for acquisitions and divestitures). It offers only a basic figure of 14 percent renewable electricity in 2014, with an additional 5 percent of energy consumed from the general power grid from renewables.

In a statement, IBM explained that three of its SoftLayer data centers (one in Houston and two in Dallas) use 100 percent wind energy and that the company has been increasing its renewable energy usage since 2001. Given that it has only reached 14 percent in 15 years, this is quite slow progress. It fits with IBM's commitment to adopt renewables "where it makes business sense" as opposed to pushing for improvements in green energy efficiency and investing to help improve technologies (and hence drive down prices) in the same way its competitors are doing.


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