The Cloud: Good for Business, Good for the Environment?

Many leading tech companies with cloud-based businesses are committed renewable and clean energy. It’s a win for business, and it’s a win for the Earth.

For Earth Day, I was struggling on what to write about. Working for an open source technology company, most of what we produce isn’t tangible; it remains firmly in the digital world of the internet so it’s easy to forget that tech can impact the environment. Since an important part of our business is cloud, I started to wonder whether cloud computing is better for the environment.

According to a 2014 Uptime Institute study on power usage effectiveness (PUE) of cloud data centers, a typical on-premises data center is 29 percent less efficient in their use of power compared to a typical large-scale cloud provider. This is largely to do with better facilities including cooling systems as well as new and more efficient equipment. That’s good news, considering Gartner forecasting the cloud computing business to be around $411 billion by 2020.

But even the most optimized servers in the most efficient data center still uses a lot of power. Also in 2014, Greenpeace did a scathing report looking at how much energy IT data centers use and where that energy comes from. That report caused several IT giants, such as Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, to look at their data centers’ carbon footprint. The report stated that IT-related services accounted for 2 percent of all global carbon emissions, which at the time, was about the same as the aviation industry. Now, as of their 2017 report, the IT sector uses about 7 percent of global electricity and our data demands are only going to continue to grow with every new app, every song or movie added to a streaming service, every new connected device.

However, many industry leaders have taken this information and made major strides to be more environmentally friendly. One of the biggest steps? Their commitment to use renewable energy to power their data centers. This includes not just contracting with renewable energy companies, but also building their own solar and wind operations. This not only helps the company, it takes pressure off the regular electrical grid.

Amazon Web Services, for example, has been investing in wind and solar. Per their website “AWS exceeded our goal of 40 percent renewable energy by the end of 2016, and we have set a new goal to be powered by 50 percent renewable energy by the end of 2017.” In 2016, data center providers including Amazon signed contracts for more than 1.2 gigawatts of renewable power (please read that in the voice of Doc Brown from “Back to the Future”). As of 2017, Apple, Google, and Facebook continue to lead the pack, growing their investment in renewable energy sources at the same rate as their business growth.

Conclusion: The carbon footprint of leading data centers was much larger in the past, but new practices and investments in renewable energy have made an impact. Many leading tech companies with cloud-based businesses have been committed to making it that way through the use of renewable / clean energy a priority for their organization. It’s a win for business and a win for the Earth. Happy Earth Day everyone.

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