Greenpeace says Apple and Amazon have dirty clouds

Molly Wood Apr 19, 2012

We’ve all heard about cloud computing being the wave of the future. Instead of having to store everything on your own computer, you connect to a computer somewhere far away for the heavy processing and storage and let your own machine operate more efficiently.

Apple offers iCloud; Amazon has a very robust cloud system, especially as a back end for other websites. Google is supposedly getting ready to launch a personal cloud system, commonly nicknamed the G Drive, as soon as next week. But these cloud services don’t operate in actual clouds, of course. They involve enormous data centers in buildings on the land. And these data centers consume a lot of energy to power and cool the machines that are being used.

Greenpeace says some of those companies running cloud services are doing better than others from an environmental stewardship point of view. It has issued a report card on energy and gives Amazon and Apple Fs. Google achieved higher scores for its use of renewable energy sources.

Those facilities use a lot of energy. “Imagine a data center — very large warehouses, often the size of several Walmarts, their shelves are filled with computers, rather than dog food,” says Gary Cook from Greenpeace International. “And (those computers) consume a significant amount of power themselves and because you have such a concentration of computers, there’s often a fair amount of energy spent on keeping the building within a certain temperature range.”

Cook says the carbon footprint from you putting vacation pictures on Facebook isn’t all that huge. But when you factor in everyone online, it gets pretty staggering. “If you look at the data centers and the electricity they use as well as the telecommunication network that you need to get to your information,” he says, “if you aggregate that on a global level, we estimate that would place it fifth largest in terms of countries and it’s supposed to double, potentially triple in the next ten years, and so this demand could, if attached to the right source, could really be leading us toward a renewable energy economy.”

Why does all this coal get used in the first place? Well, because it’s there. “The grid in general uses a lot of coal, and so the data center operators are building their data centers where they can get cheap power,” says Katie Fehrenbacher of GigaOm.

And dropping the coal to plug in something else is much easier said than done. “The problem is that first of all it’s new and also expensive,” says Fehrenbacher, “so say Apple has to build a solar farm, and that’s not cheap. And, the fuel cell farm is using a new technology, and that’s not cheap either. So, they have to be both creative and also put down a significant amount of money for this.”

We reached out to Apple for comment. Apple declined to be interviewed for our story but a spokesperson told us:

Our data center in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, and we are on track to supply more than 60 percent of that power on-site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation which will each be the largest of their kind in the country. We believe this industry-leading project will make Maiden the greenest data center ever built, and it will be joined next year by our new facility in Oregon running on 100 percent renewable energy.

You can read the full Greenpeace report here.

Also in this program, our video game guy Ben Kuchera is enamored of a new PC game, the highly bleak “Legend of Grimrock.” Says Ben, “You control a set of four criminals who are basically sent down into this dungeon to die. And your challenge is very simple, you are trying to not die, and you’re in an environment where that is very hard. There are animated skeletons and giant crabs and terrifying spiders and traps that have been sent to kill you, and ultimately, if you can survive long enough, there’s kind of a mystery down there you can solve.”

So is it fun?

“I think it is. Especially as I get older, you’re kind of presented with all these problems that are very, very hard to solve in your real life with your family and your children and paying the mortgage, and it’s fun to sit down where your problem is a giant skeleton in front of you and you kind of know how to deal with that, right? You have a sword and spells. It’s so simple, so challenging, and so refreshing, that I think it’s a good way to blow off stress at the end of the day. “

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