Summary:

If you believe the coal industry (or reports sponsored by the coal industry), coal power is the only way to fuel the growth of the Internet and the cloud.

Coalinga Pumpjack and Lit Tower in the background

Coal is the electricity source that can adequately and cheaply power the growth of the Internet and the cloud. . . so says a new report called The Cloud Begins With Coal. The report is from the Digital Power Group and Mark Mills, which is, not surprisingly, sponsored by the coal and mining industries so of course it says that. The report also doesn’t adequately address climate change and pollution from the coal industry, Internet companies’ recent attention to clean power, or the rise of low cost natural gas in the U.S.

While the report has some truths in it — about the growth of electricity use by cloud computing, end devices and networks — it utterly fails to look at some of the leading Internet companies’ significant investments in clean power. Both Apple and Google  have made massive strides towards trying to add in clean power from solar and wind for their data centers, and have also attempted to avoid some of the dirtier — yet low cost — coal powered regions of the U.S. They’ve even started working with utilities to change the way clean power can be purchased to power data centers.

Apple's solar farm in North Carolina

Apple’s solar farm in North Carolina

The report clearly relies on some outdated information to emphasize how much coal power is being used by some of the biggest  U.S. Internet companies. On page 6, the report uses a graph that is supposed to show major Internet companies’ dependence on coal power for data centers, citing companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. The problem is the data is from April 2012, and over the past year and a half many of these companies have made very large efforts to add in more clean power for their data centers. The data cited is also from an old Greenpeace report, which itself left out some of those future clean power plans as well (particularly for Apple).

In addition the report also doesn’t mention any new technologies that can make clean power more viable for 24/7-use (baseload power) like energy storage, and smart algorithms and variability prediction software. The report only pens a couple paragraphs on how wind power is challenged for providing clean power for data centers because of the variability of the supply.

The reality is that the coal industry has been on the offensive looking to clean up its image — hence why this report is sponsored by the “American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity,” a group that represents the interests of coal electricity companies. Coal has gotten a lot of negative attention in recent months, some of the most high profile from Presidential speeches pledging to limit emissions from coal plants (though President Obama is trying to minimize any perceived “war on coal”). But the science is clear that coal power contributes disproportionately to climate change and pollution.

However, as many articles have noted recently, coal power is just becoming a victim of its own economics, mostly losing out to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Coal power, long the most dominant form of electricity generation in the U.S., is now actually declining in the U.S. (though still a large source) and many of the American plants are old and on their last legs. Internationally, it’s a different story. But in the U.S., natural gas is the biggest thing to happen to the electricity industry in decades — of course the report doesn’t address that as well.

I’ll be talking about some of these issues at GigaOM’s Structure:Europe conference in London on September 18 and 19.

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