IT and environmental experts have long described cloud computing as a sort of two-for-one deal. In addition to benefitting corporate balance sheets by lowering hardware and management expenses, they say, the cloud also benefits the environment by consolidating IT resources in large, energy efficient data centers that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2011 study from the not-for-profit Carbon Disclosure Project, for example, argues that cloud solutions could help large U.S. businesses save $12.3 billion and generate 85.7 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2020. Analyst firm Pike Research, for its part, predicts that cloud solutions will produce a 31 percent drop in global electricity consumption by 2020.

However, recent research from activists at Greenpeace complicates the picture. A full accounting of cloud computing’s ecological impact, the environmental non-profit argues, must take into account not only the amount of power that cloud data centers consume but where that power comes from. And all too often cloud computing facilities lean heavily on non-renewable, carbon-belching power sources such as coal.

“For all of the tremendous innovation contained in the development of the cloud and the devices that use it, most [cloud] IT companies are currently choosing to buy their electricity off the rack, at the lowest possible price, with the focus on its quantity, not its quality,” the report states. “What this approach fails to account for, however, is the kind of energy used to feed data centers’ explosive energy consumption and the environmental impact of the electricity supply chain.”

The Greenpeace study calls out three major cloud players for particular criticism: Amazon, which draws 33.9 percent of its data center power from coal-fired generating plants; Microsoft, which receives 39.3 percent of its data center energy from coal-based sources; and Apple, which relies on coal for a whopping 55.1 percent of its data center electricity, according to Greenpeace.

NTT, for example, houses significant cloud infrastructure in Germany, a nation the Greenpeace report praises for its strong commitment to renewable energy.

Apple subsequently disputed that figure, claiming that its new 10,000 square foot data center in Maiden, N.C., will ultimately get 60 percent of its energy from renewable sources, including a solar array and fuel cells powered by biogas from nearby landfills. The Greenpeace study mentions the solar array, but claims it will ultimately supply only 10 percent of the Apple facility’s power.

Greenpeace has kinder words for other IT firms that it says are increasing their use of renewable power sources. Google, for example, has signed two separate agreements to purchase over 100 megawatts of data center power from wind energy providers, and is investing heavily in a variety of clean power startups and pilot projects. Yahoo, similarly, has factored access to hydroelectric power into decisions about where it locates new data centers.

For companies eager to do business more sustainably, the upshot of Greenpeace’s research is clear: some clouds are cleaner than others. Businesses that include cloud computing among their green IT strategies should investigate how and where their present and potential cloud vendors get data center power. NTT, for example, houses significant cloud infrastructure in Germany, a nation the Greenpeace report praises for its strong commitment to renewable energy. Technology executives should seek out cloud partners that are comparably serious about making adoption of renewable energy sources a priority.



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