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Facts and Figures Behind Greenpeace’s Green Data Center Report

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What are the facts and figures behind Greenpeace’s big data center report card last week? While much of the coverage of the report focused on the A-to-F grades ranking Apple (s AAPL), Facebook, Google (s GOOG), Yahoo (s YHOO), Microsoft (s MSFT), IBM (s IBM) and others, the report also laid out some broad categories where IT giants can be lauded for doing well — and other areas where they’ll need some urging by advocates and policies.

Over at my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), I delve into some of the measures and methods Greenpeace used to deliver its “How Dirty is Your Data” report (PDF). The common thread is Greenpeace’s goal of cajoling the IT industry to buy, source and build more renewable power for their data centers — and to stop accepting cheap power derived from coal and nuclear power plants.

Some of Greenpeace’s criticisms seem less fair than others, to be sure. For example, the report seems to assume that ever-increasing efficiency of IT equipment will simply lead to a bulge in IT usage, overwhelming the efficiency gains — Jevons Paradox in action. But the only solid evidence the report cites in that 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.

Likewise, Greenpeace is very adamant that IT companies need to be held accountable for the energy mix their data centers are using — something anyone who’s watched Greenpeace’s “unfriend coal” campaign against Facebook already knows. But there’s only so much renewable energy to go around in this country. 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 that much worse than the national average.

Greenpeace also notes that companies that did well by some measures fell down in others. For example, it lauds Google’s decisions to buy hundreds of megawatts of wind power for its Midwest data centers. At the same time, it calls Google “utterly nontransparent when it comes to reporting its emissions and total energy use, or even the locations of its data centres,” making it difficult to prove its efforts are “having a positive net impact.”

Image courtesy of Route79 via Creative Commons license.