Is cloud computing bad for the environment?

Credit: Percento Tech

The Cloud exists away from the reality of a hard drive. Servers still have an impact on the environment though, with companies working on solutions.

As human beings, we mentally separate digital from reality. The cloud has consequences though. Servers take up space. The internet has a carbon footprint.

The internet feels invisible. CDs, DVDs, newspapers are real: Spotify, Netflix and the Guardian online don’t feel like they are. Connection to greater knowledge is all around. The omnipresence of the web has only been heightened by IoT; Wi-Fi is seemingly everywhere and 5G will only extend the feeling of being plugged into the matrix at all times without physically being connected to anything at all.

The cloud reinforces a feeling of abstract power. Devices that you hold and use are real, tangible and storage space – although not something you can see – is something that most users are well aware of. We feel it when overload our phones with too many photos, our laptops with too many files. The cloud takes away such restrictions. It’s a vague place that none of us even think about. We’re happy to dump our data there provided we remember the password.

If you live your life online, both in terms of browsing and storage, it’s easy to feel a kind of digital weightlessness. It’s not often that we consider how many servers are actually propping up our wireless lifestyles. The cloud is not a memory palace to retrieve your data from. The cloud is a physical storage facility that has a burden on the world.

In the US, streaming music services dump between 25,000 and 40,000 tons of CO2 into the air every year. Data centres take large amounts of energy to power and need to be on 24 hours a day to ensure that access to data never drops. So aren’t data centres the hottest places on earth? Well, not really, as they need to be cooled. That takes a lot of energy.

How bad for the environment is the cloud?

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the biggest and fastest growing cloud provider. With over 90 services, AWS focuses on computing, storage, networking and IoT tools. It also has a history of significant service outages and requires a lot of power to keep their servers up.

AWS have pledged to power its data centres with 100% renewable energy. In April, the company announced three new wind farms that could generate 670,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of renewable energy every year. This is on top of the five solar farms already in operation in Virginia.

Greenpeace, however, is sceptical. According to the charity, only 12% of Amazon’s data centres in Virginia are being powered by renewable energy. 70% of the world’s traffic passes through Virginia; the power that AWS use in the state is enough to power 1.4 million homes annually. That’s nearly enough to power Birmingham and Glasgow combined.

The cloud is a vague place that none of us even think about. We’re happy to dump our data there provided we remember the password.

“Despite Amazon’s public commitment to renewable energy, the world’s largest cloud computing company is hoping no one will notice that it’s still powering its corner of the internet with dirty energy,” explained Greenpeace USA Senior Corporate Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim. “Unless Amazon and other cloud giants in Virginia change course, our growing use of the internet could lead to more pipelines, more pollution and more problems for our climate.”

The total power demand is as much as nine large coal power plants. Netflix are perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest culprits of energy usage. The streaming service pledged to offset its carbon footprint four years ago, but Greenpeace is again unimpressed and has seen little sign of progress.

Is it all bad news?

Time is of the essence for the environment. If you believe some, irreversible changes are around the corner. If you believe others, we’ve already passed the point of no return.

Whilst many cloud companies have started small though, others have made largescale changes. Apple’s data centres are powered entirely by solar energy, for example. Apple reportedly bought another 100 acres of land to double the size of their solar project, with their renewable energy now producing over 80 million kilowatt-hours (KWh) of energy a year. Apple also plans to only use renewable energy in their new data centre in Prineville, Oregon, where Facebook have a data centre that uses an evaporating cooling system to save on energy costs.

Apple’s example is one of the best but other cloud providers are putting effort into developing greener ways. Microsoft has hired a Director for Datacentre Sustainability and reduced water usage in their data centres by replacing it with an air-cooling system. Google have purchased 100% renewable energy to match the consumption from their data centres and offices, as often it’s difficult to integrate renewable energy where data centres are.

Google as a company have invested $3 billion in renewable energy projects. It seems that investing in the environment and offsetting the carbon emissions created is the best way for bigger companies to give back, for now, at least until the infrastructure is in place for greener solutions long-term.

What does the future hold for cloud computing?

In May this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos appeared to refuse to address employees demanding the company take more action on climate change.

The story hit the news worldwide. It didn’t reflect well on the Amazon boss but it was a stark reminder that more and more tech employees are concerned about the planet.

Many tech giants have begun locating operations near water and other renewable energy sources. On top of this, building energy-efficient warehouses and looking closely at the airflow in buildings can help to reduce the energy that comes out of data centres too.

The more people are aware of the carbon footprint from the services they use, the more pressure companies feel to act. With big businesses pledging to do more for the planet and public opinion of a company being greatly improved with signs of being green, there is a lot of reason to hope that more companies will implement greener cloud solutions in the future.

Luke Conrad

Technology & Marketing Enthusiast

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