Greenpeace activists are nothing if not determined. If the cause calls for it, they'll break out the rappelling gear and get down to action - as they did this morning at Amazon's headquarters, hoisting an 800-square-foot cloud-shaped banner to protest the dirty energy that Greenpeace says Amazon and Microsoft use to power their cloud computing services.
On Tuesday Greenpeace released a report investigating and ranking 14 global cloud computing companies on the environmental impacts of their cloud computing choices. The report was titled, "How Clean is Your Cloud?"
Just in case there's someone in Seattle that remains un-tech-savvy, cloud computing simply means using a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet to store, manage and process data. It's already a big deal, and is getting bigger. A press release from Greenpeace today says, "The growth and scale of investment in the cloud is mind-blowing, with estimates of a 50-fold increase in the amount of digital information by 2020."
To boil it down even further, every time you or your BFFs upload a picture, song, video or anything else to a site like Facebook or Twitter, that digital information has to be stored somewhere - and cloud computing data centers are where it all goes. These centers are typically giant buildings with loads of massive computer servers that require loads of electricity to operate.
The issue at hand is where company's like Amazon and Microsoft choose to locate their cloud data hubs, and what kind of power is used to power these hubs. For instance, data hubs in Hong Kong are heavily powered by coal, while data centers located in Sweden are less so. Things like temperature and access to reliable, affordable electricity to power the data hubs play into a company's decision of where to locate them. There are now cloud computing data centers all around the world. Microsoft, for instance, recently announced intentions to build a new cloud computing data center in Wyoming.
Today's Greenpeace protest was part of an overarching campaign by the environmental-watchdog organization related to the recently-released study.
As Seattle Times tech writer Janet Tu noted of the report earlier this week:
The two main sources of dirty energy Greenpeace listed are coal and nuclear. Among the clean/renewable energy sources: solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal.
Based on those criteria, Yahoo, Dell, Google and Facebook rank highest in Greenpeace's "clean energy index."
Companies ranking the lowest: Salesforce.com, Oracle and IBM. Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are in the next-lowest group, according to Greenpeace's clean-energy index.
Greenpeace's report - compiled from publicly available data and estimates- indicates 34 percent of the electricity used by Amazon comes from coal-generated power and 30 percent comes from nuclear, while Microsoft uses 39 percent coal power and 26 percent nuclear power. Amazon calls the report's data and assumptions inaccurate.
While Microsoft and Amazon may not be the worst of the worst, Greenpeace says it focused on these companies because they both have significant room for improvement, and also because they have the potential to be leaders in the move toward cleaner cloud computing.
"There's a split within the sector. There are companies like Google and Yahoo and now Facebook that are really making an effort to power their clouds with green energy," says Greenpeace Media Officer David Pomerantz. "It was clear that there were other companies that are really lagging. These are innovative [companies], their sitting on a lot of cash, but they're really behind the curve when it comes to the energy choices they're making. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are definitely three of those companies."
"The other thing I'd say is these are really influential companies that have a great deal of potential for leadership. There are other companies that also have very dirty energy choices to power their cloud infrastructure, but Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have huge potentials for leadership," Pomerantz continues. "They're industry leaders. They have massively large and very quickly growing cloud infrastructure, and if they continue to do the wrong thing it will push the sector that way, and if they make a change and do the right thing and choose to go down a clean energy pathway it will push the industry in the right direction."
"We do think that [Apple, Amazon and Microsoft] have significant room for improvement, and we also think when they improve the impact will be really, really great," offers Greenpeace IT Analyst Casey Harrell, one of the co-authors of Greenpeace's recent report.
Microsoft responded to today's protest with the following statement, sent to Seattle Weekly through a spokesperson:
Microsoft works hard to drive efficiency and sustainability across our operations, including our datacenters. Our latest modular data centers use about 50 percent less energy than those from three years ago, and only 1 percent of the water used by traditional data centers in the industry.
On April 16, the company announced that it had reached its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent per unit of revenue below its 2007 baseline. We engage with a wide range of environmental sustainability advocates, including Greenpeace, to inform our efforts to reduce our environmental impact.
"As we communicated to this researcher several weeks ago, we don't disclose this information publicly, but his data and assumptions about Amazon are inaccurate," Tera Randall with Amazon Public Relations says in an email to Seattle Weekly. "Amazon Web Services believes that cloud computing is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional computing. Instead of each company having their own datacenter that serves just them, AWS makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of companies to consolidate their datacenter use into a handful of datacenters in the AWS Cloud, resulting in much higher utilization rates and eliminating the waste that occurs when datacenters don't operate near their capacity. The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption."
Harrell says the Greenpeace report took roughly three months to put together, with much of that time spent meeting with the companies involved with the report looking for better info than is publicly available. Harrell says Greenpeace met with all 14 companies covered in the report, with some of the sit-downs being lengthy, and others - like the meeting with Amazon - better described as perfunctory and cursory.
"We really wanted to make sure that each company had an opportunity to give feedback before we went to publication," says Harrell.
Harrell describes Greenpeace's approach with the report and today's protest as one created to appeal to employees of Amazon and Microsoft, not alienate them - saying the approach was designed to send the message: "We're trying to build you up, not tear you down." He says many Amazon and Microsoft employees are "value aligned" with Greenpeace's message, and that it was evident during today's rappelling and banner hanging.
As to what companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Apple can do to improve, Harrell says there are four things he'd like to see:
- When a company builds a new data center, build it where the electricity grid is already green.
- Companies should state publicly that they want to build where the energy is green.
- Companies should utilize their purchasing power to lobby current energy providers to provide more clean energy, which might be a tough pill to swallow since it involves admitting their previous investments in dirty energy grids.
- Companies should make direct investments in renewable energy, like investing in wind farm or solar power plants.
Here are some photos of today's protest provided by Greenpeace:
More photos on next page ...
And for anyone interested, here the full Greenpeace press release on today's protest is available on the following page ...
Greenpeace's press release on today's protest of Amazon and Microsoft:
Seattle, USA, 19 April 2012-Greenpeace activists floated a cloud over
downtown Seattle today in a demonstration to draw attention to the type of
energy that tech companies Amazon and Microsoft use to power their cloud
Activists climbed atop the roof outside of Amazon's new headquarters, and
across the street from Microsoft offices, and rappelled off the roof
displaying an 800 square foot cloud-shaped banner over the city's rooftops.
The message on the banner read "Amazon, Microsoft: How Clean is Your Cloud?"
"People want to use innovative devices and technology like the Kindle and
Windows Phone without having to connect to a cloud powered by dirty and
dangerous energy," said Greenpeace International IT Analyst Casey Harrell. "Amazon and Microsoft have some of the brightest, most innovative engineers
in the business. They have the potential to power their cloud with green, renewable energy, but are falling behind competitors Google, Facebook and
Yahoo in the race to build a truly clean cloud."
As more people around the world use the cloud to store and share photos,
videos, and documents, companies such as Amazon and Microsoft are building
more data centers that house thousands of computers and consume tremendous
amounts of electricity. The growth and scale of investment in the cloud is
mind-blowing, with estimates of a 50-fold increase in the amount of digital
information by 2020. (1) On Tuesday, Greenpeace International released its
report "How Clean is Your Cloud?" [
which assessed 14 global cloud computing companies on their environmental