Facebook, Apple, Google, Rackspace, and most of the other major players in the cloud computing world have made a show in recent years of moving their data centers to renewable energy. Why hasn’t Amazon followed suit?
During the nascent years of cloud computing, it was easy enough to pretend that the cloud was a kind of magical force: an invisible dimension that stores and processes all of the data we move around the Internet every day. As cloud computing exploded in popularity over the past decade, however, it quickly became clear to the public that there is no magical force. There are only large, hulking data centers that suck up energy as they store the ever-growing pile of emails, files, and websites that humans generate.
Many of the world’s largest Internet companies—who are also the biggest data center users—take the data center energy problem seriously, as they should. As the New York Times pointed out last year in a series on data center energy use, data centers used 2% of all electricity in the U.S. in 2010, and that number will only continue to rise.
There are two ways to tackle data center energy use: the first is to implement energy efficiency measures. The other way is to place the data centers in locations where power companies mainly dole out clean energy. And if that doesn’t work, companies can lobby utilities to make changes for them.
For five years, Greenpeace has put out its Cool IT Leaderboard: a look at the companies that have produced the best (and worst) IT-related energy solutions. This is the most recent version (see image at right).
Most of the biggest data center users out there—Apple, Facebook, Google—are doing a reasonably good job in using renewables. Not Amazon.
Overall, Amazon Web Services (AWS) gets just 13.5% of its electricity used for cloud computing from renewable sources. Approximately 70% of all servers in AWS’s cloud are in Virginia, where 75% of its electricity comes from coal and nuclear power, and just 4% comes from renewable sources. Customers that want more renewably powered cloud services, AWS explains on its website, will have to look outside of Virginia:
AWS has four Regions in North America—one on the East Coast of the United States, one in Silicon Valley, a third in Oregon, and a fourth called GovCloud which enables US Government agencies and contractors to run more sensitive workloads in the cloud and still meet key regulatory requirements. Both the Oregon and GovCloud Regions use 100% carbon-free power. AWS customers who want to operate in a Region that uses 100% carbon-free power can select one of these two Regions.
But the majority of Amazon’s data centers are far from carbon-free.
There are early signs that Amazon’s energy use patterns in Virginia may change. The local power company—Dominion Virginia Power—is reportedly working on a pilot program that would allow large customers to buy renewable energy for higher rates (up to 7% to 10% more). Wind Power Monthly explains the program:
Under Schedule RG, customers would specify a type of green electricity and then negotiate a contract with DVP, which would sign a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the operator of the renewables project. The customer’s purchase would be "self-funding"; any costs associated with delivering the renewable energy would be passed on to them, says Jim Norvelle, a media relations director for generation with Dominion, DVP’s parent. That includes a monthly administrative fee of $500 per participating electricity buyer.
"I don’t know what role Amazon is playing in the discussions. I would anticipate if this goes forward that they would be a significant chunk of the pilot subscribers," says Gary Cook, an IT analyst with Greenpeace. Amazon hasn’t responded to our request for comment.
Cook explains: "So far, we have had some discussions with Amazon, and they’re not making this a priority. They’re generally focusing on efficiency. Meanwhile, companies like Facebook and Google are moving towards abolishing coal-powered data centers entirely." In just the past few months, Facebook announced that it’s building a major data center in Iowa (which is 25% wind-powered) and Google convinced coal-heavy power company Duke Energy to offer renewables to its customers, including Google.
It’s not clear why Amazon won’t talk about its renewable energy goals—perhaps because it doesn’t really have any. Part of the problem may be that Amazon’s customers haven’t spoken out in the past. "They have a business model that allows someone to quickly scale up in a big way with little upfront cost," says Cook. Still, he adds, "They are increasingly getting questions from their customer base about the environmental footprint of their services."
It’s likely that Amazon does significant work on energy efficiency, if only for its own benefit (there are signs that it’s paying attention). "Companies that are building their own data centers absolutely care [about efficiency]. It’s a big capital expense, the operational expense is significant," says Bill Weihl, Facebook’s manager of sustainability and energy efficiency initiatives.
With so many other data center-heavy moving quickly towards renewables, it’s hard to imagine that Amazon won’t eventually follow suit. Remember: no one in the data center industry really thought about renewables or energy efficiency at all a decade ago.
"Energy efficiency was not even a question back in the old days. We had to keep the data center up and running, and it didn’t matter if the equipment burned up," says Rajan Battish, an electrical engineer who has been working on data center design for two decades. "The difference was, the density—the amount of computing power needed—was low. We didn’t have iPhones back then, we didn’t have apps."
Data center use is only going to rise as more of the world begins to rely on cloud computing. At some point, Amazon will have to pay more attention to renewables, and not just for customers who specifically select them. The company’s customer base will eventually start asking more questions.