The "cloud computing" mega-trend is upon us, with the Apple iPad on the market and an array of digital tablets in development that will deliver yet another gateway to the cloud of online content.
But cloud computing comes with a giant energy and carbon footprint, according to a new by environmental group Greenpeace.
In 2020, the global cloud will quietly suck up 1,963 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — about half the current electricity consumption of the United States, and more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined, the report said.
"This could lead to more dependence on coal power," said Gary Cook, Greenpeace Climate Campaign Coordinator and co-author of the report.
The cloud is where Web users access email, Google documents, Facebook pages, pictures on photo-sharing sites and the slew of other information held on scads of distant Internet servers.
The study is an updated analysis of the research led by the Climate Group, a London-based non-profit organization, in their 2008 , which looked at the emissions footprint of the entire Web.
The Greenpeace report focuses only on data centers and the telecommunications networks that power the already massive cloud and consume "incredible amounts of energy," it said. For instance, search giant Google, believed to be running data servers worldwide, delivers all of its products from the global cloud.
As "cloud-computing" spreads, the major providers face a big decision on where and how to build their data centers, the group said. This presents an opportunity to "create a green and renewable cloud."
"It becomes really important for them to be building the cloud in a way that is not further increasing our dependence on coal and other fossil fuel sources," Cook told SolveClimate.
Facebook: A Cloud Computing Giant Falls Behind
The giants of the cloud are "becoming almost like the next aluminum smelters," Cook said. "They are big, industrial-sized electricity consumers."
"Some brands are making more of an effort," to green their data centers, Cook said.
Facebook, he said, is not one of them. The social networking giant, which boasts 350 million users worldwide, broke ground in January on its first custom data center located in Prineville, Ore. The power will come from utility PacifiCorp and be predominantly fed by coal. "Their plan will consume up to 40 megawatts of electricity," Cook said, "a big addition on the load center."
Facebook has the center, which is being built to the LEED Gold standard, as "highly efficient" and said its green features will "minimize the environmental impact" and the facility's energy costs.
For Greenpeace, however, efficiency by itself is not enough.
"Even the most efficiently built data centers with the highest utilization rates serve only to mitigate, rather than eliminate, harmful emissions," the report said.
According to Cook, cleaner sources will soon be available near Prineville. "There's actually a wind farm that's being built right outside there, which Facebook "could be using in part for their electricity needs."
In response to Greenpeace's statements, Facebook wrote:
"PacifiCorp is now the #1 utility owner operator of renewables, having grown their portfolio 2,400 percent over the past three years."
Oregon's "very aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard, calling for 25 percent of power in the state to be produced by renewable resources by 2025 ... will ensure continued growth of renewable generation resources."