When is the last time you streamed a video on the internet? What about listening to your favorite song though Apple's iCloud? Have you ever stored information online using DropBox or Google Documents? If so, you have participated in what is commonly known as cloud computing. The data you are accessing does not reside on your local computer or smart phone, but rather on another computer server. Sometimes these data centers can be quite large. For example, Google estimates that they use the energy equivalent of 188,000 homes per year on data centers. Nationally data centers consume roughly 3% of total electricity, doubling every 8 years.
Where does the energy to run these facilities come from? On Google's home page they state that 35% of the total electricity is renewable. Apple made news in 2011 when they announced a $1 billion project to build solar panels and a data center in North Carolina that would store users iCloud data. Of course, it is in the best interests for both of these companies to promote their renewable use. Where does the rest of the energy come from?
Greenpeace reported the energy choices Google, Apple, and other tech companies make in the spring of 2011. They produced a report card that lists a clean energy index and coal intensity use.
What is striking about this list is the fact that Apple is last in clean energy and first in coal intensity. I did not expect this because of the great marketing effort the company has. Second, it seems that coal might be the fuel running the internet. Third, there are significant issues with energy transparency, siting, and mitigation. Fourth, the report highlights that improvements in energy efficiency are not enough. A change in the source of that energy is required. Finally, there is no mention of total oil use, but it can be assumed that a large portion of the difference between coal intensity and clean energy is filled by oil.
Data centers are likely here to stay. Reporting on the energy use of companies that provide this service is vital to enacting real change.