Server farms, those warehouses full of computers that handle music streaming, web searches and other cloud services, consume a lot of energy.  In fact, the carbon emissions from the fossil fuels that power data centers account for the largest part of  (for example) Google’s footprint. A Google search, for instance requires .3 watt-hours of electricity. Each minute watched on YouTube generates .1 grams of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by billions of searches or minutes watched and you get the picture.

Recognizing that the growing use of cloud services will only continue to boost energy demand, Facebook and Apple (with its iTunes Music Store and new iCloud service) are taking action to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Facebook will open a data center in Lulea, Sweden to take advantage of the country’s frigid air to cool its servers.  Sweden’s hydropower infrastructure will power the servers themselves. Rumors (and they’re always rumors, aren’t they?) suggest that Apple is looking to build a solar farm next door to its brand new data center in Catawba County, North Carolina.

An international treaty regulating carbon dioxide is not likely (PDF) any time soon. Without a legally-binding treaty or other meaningful domestic plan to internalize the cost of carbon into the price of fossil fuels, private companies have very little incentive to turn away from these very cheap (PDF) energy sources.

Apple’s and Facebook’s plans (along with Google’s partial reliance on wind) demonstrate the positive impact that private actors can have in a world without certain needed regulations. As cloud services become increasingly and seamlessly (Siri, for instance is cloud-based) integrated with technology, energy demands will increase.  Technology companies cannot wait for the law to catch up with them. While it is true that these and similar companies contribute very little to global carbon emissions, every little bit of carbon mitigation counts.

Private investment in renewables may have to be a stopgap measure absent an optimal (PDF) international climate change agreement.

– David Rutenberg

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3 Responses to Every iCloud Has a Greener Lining

  1. Megan LaDriere says:

    If only Captain Planet were real, he would solve all these problems. In all seriousness, I think there should be regulation because I don’t think companies will do enough unless they are forced to. At least this blog post and Alex’s soon to be published note are creating a discussion. By our powers combined…

  2. David Rutenberg says:

    Thanks for your great response Alex. I think there is a lot to be said about looking at who is actually consuming the carbon energy beyond the actual producers – after all it is the consumers (the Internet companies) that drive the demand for the fossil fuel production. In this way it is nice that they are looking to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

    I would argue that it may be necessary to this idea one step farther. After all, it is web users that conduct the searches that drive the Internet companies to demand additional fossil fuels. But I’m not sure how to internalize the cost of a web search beyond putting a price on that, which probably isn’t the best idea. I wonder then if the true measure for the Internet companies is not to necessarily reduce total emissions (since I doubt Google should be faulted for its larger user base than say Yahoo). So I guess after all that, I like your idea of appealing to consumers’ demand for green energy to force competition on that metric.

    But as to looking at the consumer products that consume energy that people use to get onto the Internet, maybe their energy use could be factored into their emissions somehow?

    Also, what’s to stop an Internet company from uprooting to another country that doesn’t have these reporting requirements?

  3. Alexandra Pichette says:

    Great blog post Dave! I am actually writing my note on this topic, and I think a huge part of the problem is that it is actually difficult to quantify exactly how much carbon the internet companies (broadly defined) are emitting. This is a serious issue because as you said, there is no incentive for companies to reduce their carbon emissions, especially without a meaningful comparison. One reason it is so hard to compare who is using the cleanest energy comes from the way we look at carbon emissions, which allows consumers of large amounts of carbon, like the electronic companies, to escape reporting requirements (like the EPA’s reporting rule for direct emissions over 25K). Currently, the focus is on direct emissions- such as those created by a factory or power plant. I advocate for an expansion of the carbon reporting rules to include secondary emissions, those that are attributed in large proportion to a single consumer (the internet companies make up over 1% of the world’s total). I argue that the public pressure of an actual comparison will incentivize these innovative companies to find and use cleaner sources of energy to power their servers. This registry will be cheaper than an actual cap-and-trade designed to encompass the internet companies and will hopefully elicit less resistance from the companies themselves and their lobbyists in Washington. I would love to know your thoughts!