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."
In Greenpeace's view, Yahoo! is doing better. The company chose to build a data center outside Buffalo, N.Y., powered in part by the excess capacity from a hydroelectric power plant. The facility will get almost 30 percent of its electricity from renewable electricity.
"From a climate perspective, it's a better choice," said Cook.
Apple's new 500,000-square-foot North Carolina data center in Maiden, meanwhile, will be getting over 50 percent of its power from coal and just under 4 percent from renewables.
For its part, Google "has been trying to manage their carbon footprint," said Cook, although "it is not the primary driving force for their data center."
IT Giants Can Drive Clean Energy Policy
"We're not trying to make Google or any of these companies the equivalent of the utilities or ExxonMobil, but they have choices and influence," said Cook. "They should be using it in ways that are going to drive toward less use of coal and more renewable energy."
The U.S. grid is heavily dependent on coal, and Cook acknowledges: "These companies can't solve the problem with our dirty grid themselves." But cloud providers, he argues, can get involved in creating policies that will drive rapid deployment of clean electricity generation.
Google has probably done the most of the IT companies, at least in terms of lobbying for economy-wide climate solutions, said Cook. He highlighted the work of Dan Reicher, the director of climate and energy initiatives at Google and a former assistant secretary of energy, who has a "fairly sophisticated approach to what kinds of changes are needed."
In 2007, under Reicher's watch, Google launched the RE<C campaingn to make utility-scale renewable energy cheaper than coal. As part of that push, it has been pouring venture-capital cash into the most promising cutting-edge deep geothermal and concentrating solar technologies.
But Cook said Google has been conspicuously silent on its overall electricity demand. "It's growing very quickly, and they don't want that story told," he said.
Earlier this year, Google received federal approval to buy and sell energy on a wholesale basis. It is "an indication of how big their power bills are," said Cook, but it also gives Google more options for the way it powers its data centers.
"Hopefully they will use that ability to drive greater investment in renewable energy sources," Cook said.