Weekly Update

By the Numbers: Greenpeace’s Green Data Center Report Card

Greenpeace’s big report card on green data centers got a lot of press last week for its A-to-F grades for Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Twitter and others. But which of those grades should be studied as useful guides to future green data center progress, and which shouldn’t?

That’s an important question, considering that Greenpeace’s “How Dirty is Your Data” report (PDF) is all over the map. It covers everything from Jevons Paradox in IT — does more energy-effective computing get swallowed up in the ever-increasing demand for computing energy? — to the general lack of transparency about IT giants’ overall computing energy and carbon footprints. The main goal, however is to cajole the IT industry into using renewable power — whether they buy it, build it or invest in it — and to stop accepting cheap power derived from coal and nuclear power plants.

Excepting Google, data center operators aren’t in the energy business, which limits their power when it comes to picking their own energy supplies. And several of Greenpeace’s examples of super-green data centers will be hard to pencil out. Still, Greenpeace also includes some policy prescriptions the industry could probably agree on. Let’s grade the report, based on how well it answered its own questions:

Does IT save more energy than it uses? Greenpeace says it doesn’t know, but probably yes. The Climate Group’s SMART 2020 report (PDF) says information and communication technology (ICT) should cut carbon emissions 15 percent by 2020 by helping other industries do business more efficiently. The best Greenpeace can do to dispute this is to cite a “lack of transparency around the lifecycle impacts of IT’s own growing emissions and rising electricity use.” But it can’t figure out if IT is net energy negative or positive today.

Does cloud computing save more energy? Again, Greenpeace can’t tell, due to lack of disclosure. Beyond showcase, high-efficiency data centers, most companies shroud their data in trade secrecy. Annual reporting a la Carbon Disclosure Project standards could help, but facility-level energy mix and emissions data would be better. But we might look first to energy costs in cloud computing prices as a guide to how energy is impacting the growth of the cloud. Some say it will save tons of energy by consolidating small, inefficient data centers, but others say it could end up wasting it in energy used in networking and transmitting data.

Does IT efficiency get washed out by increasing demand? Greenpeace argues that more energy-efficient computing will just lead to more and more use of computing in a way that will actually increase energy use for IT overall. In other words, Greenpeace applies Jevons Paradox to its critique of the IT industry — but it fails to make the case in its report that this is actually happening today. In fact, the only solid evidence it cites in this section comes from a 2007 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report (PDF) that finds increasing IT efficiency will flatten or reduce total IT energy use over time.

Should IT giants be held responsible for the share of renewable energy in their data centers’ power mix? Greenpeace is very adamant that the answer to this question should be yes, as anyone who’s watched its “unfriend coal” campaign against Facebook already knows. But there’s only so much renewable energy to go around in this country. Many data centers have been built in Oregon and Washington to take advantage of the region’s rich hydropower resources, but few regions are so abundant in cheap and always-on renewable power (Iceland is another example). While Greenpeace dings Apple, Google and Facebook for accepting millions of dollars in state incentives to build data centers in coal- and nuclear-rich North Carolina, that state’s 4-percent renewable power mix isn’t much worse than the national average, depending on how you calculate big hydro projects into the total.

Must IT giants build and buy their own green energy resources? Not every company can buy hundreds of megawatts of wind power or start its own energy trading arm, as Google has. Still, Greenpeace does lay out some useful policy recommendations that could help support those companies that do want to go green on their own, including clean energy investment incentives for the IT sector, or smart grid and energy storage technologies to help data centers incorporate variable wind and solar power.

All in all, amidst all the negative publicity for companies that earned failing grades, Greenpeace’s report gives the data center industry some useful questions to address. Early steps include The Green Grid’s new carbon utilization effectiveness (CUE) metric to bolster energy-specific data center efficiency stats like power use effectiveness (PUE). As long as the energy needed to track all this new efficiency data doesn’t exceed the potential savings, it should be worth investing in as well.

Question of the week

What’s behind the green data center grades in Greenpeace’s dirty data report card?