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Greenpeace: An Eye on the Carbon Footprint of the Cloud

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Will Facebook rise to Greenpeace’s challenge and pledge to cut coal out of its data center equation by Earth Day on April 22? Fingers crossed. On the day before Earth Day, on April 21 at Green:Net 2011, Greenpeace will discuss its “Facebook: Unfriend Coal” challenge, and will unveil some new data about the extent to which cloud-focused companies from Facebook to Google (s GOOG) to Microsoft (s MSFT) to Apple (s AAPL) are using clean energy to power their clouds.

Greenpeace started its campaign to convince Facebook to move away from using coal to power its data center early last year. At that time, Facebook had just announced it would build its latest data center in Oregon, in the footprint of utility Pacific Power that largely derives its electricity from coal. Facebook later announced it would double the size of the new data center before it was even built, and Greenpeace responded by saying Facebook had “irresponsibly chosen to double-down its bet on dirty energy.”

While few Internet companies have plans to power their energy-hungry data centers with 100 percent clean power, some companies are being a lot more proactive than others. Take Google: Last year, Google entered into a contract to buy clean power from a wind farm in Iowa, and, as I wrote in this GigaOM Pro article (subscription required) I think that decision was made with its data centers in mind. (Hear more about clean power and data centers from Google’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl and Yahoo’s Director, Climate and Energy Strategy, Christina Page at Green:Net 2011).

As Google’s Bill Weihl told us in an interview, Google can agree to buy wind power before the wind farm is built, helping the developer get a better interest rate for the financing of the plant. Then Google can sell the power from the wind farm on the wholesale market (its subsidiary Google Energy is approved to buy and sell energy) until one of its data center power contracts expires and Google can use the wind power more directly, like negotiating with the local utility to resell it to them.

Facebook can easily argue with Greenpeace that the cost of energy from renewables is just too high right now to be economical to power data centers in many places in the country. And they’d be right. However, I think Facebook could add a lot bigger dose of innovation and leadership to the matter of where, how and how much power is going to its data centers.

Utility wind contracts can actually be pretty cheap if you find the right location and utility — potentially six cents a kilowatt-hour for a 20-year contract. That price could be a hedge against a future rise in energy prices, particularly if a cap-and-trade system ever gets passed in the U.S. that would cause the price of coal and natural gas generated electricity to go up.

Google’s move might be a small and experimental step, but it also could be a smart economical one. According to estimates from a report from MIT and Carnegie Mellon, Google has been spending about $38 million annually on electricity for data centers. They can expect that cost — and the associated energy use — to rise as Google’s mobile web reach expands, and more people in the world connect to the Internet and use Google search.

Data centers are notorious energy hogs, and they doubled their electricity use between 2000 and 2005 worldwide. A 2010 Pike Research report estimated investments into energy-efficiency software and hardware for “greening” data centers will grow annually to reach $41.4 billion by 2015.

Greenpeace says in a blog post that:

At current growth rates data centers and telecommunication networks, the two key components of the cloud Facebook depends on, will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatts hours of electricity in 2020. That’s more than triple their current consumption and more than the current electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

Greenpeace wants Facebook to pledge to cut coal out completely by 2021. What do you guys think? Is that reasonable?

Image courtesy of substack.