Apple gets green light from Greenpeace

Server farm: data centres consume more energy each year than the whole of the UK. ©nmedia/Shutterstock

We are well aware that industries such as manufacturing, transport and energy have big environmental footprints, but what about big data’s? About 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. The large servers that process that data, and everything else on the internet, use 420 terawatt hours of electricity a year, about 3 per cent of the world’s electricity supply.

Data centres consume more energy each year than the whole of the UK, accounting for about 2 per cent of global greenhouse gases, according to research from the University of Leeds. Some processors are housed in small rooms and others in “data farms” the size of several football pitches. They run 24 hours a day and therefore require costly infrastructure to keep them from overheating.

With few mechanisms available to curb burgeoning internet use, technology groups are left in a quandary over how to make increased data processing and storage more efficient – a challenge some have excelled at, while others have fallen short, according to Greenpeace.

The environmental group has just published its report Clicking Green: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Green Internet, which benchmarks the energy performance of the IT sector, “challenging those companies who are the largest global architects and operators of the internet to commit to powering their rapid growth with 100 per cent renewable energy”.

Thanks to the leadership and advocacy of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Switch, we are seeing the tech industry make major strides toward powering the internet with clean energy

Apple takes top plaudits for the third year in a row as the platform operator that has made the biggest effort to reduce its ecological footprint. The company continued to “lead the sector in matching growth with an equivalent or larger supply of renewable energy”, and to use its influence “to push governments as well as utility and IT sector vendors to increase access to renewable energy”.

“Thanks to the leadership and advocacy of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Switch, we are seeing the tech industry make major strides toward powering the internet with clean energy,” said Gary Cook, Greenpeace’s senior IT analyst.

The report’s clean energy index – based on power demand estimates and the use of renewables to meet this demand – put Apple at 83 per cent well ahead of the rest, Facebook a poor second with an energy index of 67 per cent, and Google third with 56 per cent.

“Google has been carbon neutral since 2007, and next year we’ll be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy as our newest wind and solar farms come online,” said Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior vice president for technical infrastructure.

Apple has pushed its Chinese suppliers – many of whom have been criticised for polluting the environment – to produce 2.2 gigawatts of solar power and other renewable energy by 2020.

Concerns were raised over Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing leader which provides services for Netflix, Spotify and Pinterest. “Given AWS’s continued lack of transparency and its rapid growth in Virginia and other markets largely served by dirty energy, it remains unclear whether the AWS cloud is actually on a path to becoming renewably powered,” said the report.

Netflix had not given any public commitment to renewable energy – unlike other major streaming services – and had not provided details of the energy mix for its global operations.

The report’s authors warned that the migration of services to the cloud could increase the demand for coal and other fossil fuels despite significant gains in energy efficiency, “because of the dramatic growth in new data centre construction by cloud and colocation companies such as AWS and Digital Realty in Virginia and other hot spots that have some of the lowest percentages of renewable electricity in the US”.

The leadership and influence of global tech groups can affect wholesale movements in energy policy and funding, but the IT sector is equally populated by smaller and medium-sized operators who may feel powerless to control the source and nature of their electricity.

MEDIAL Streaming, an Oxfordshire-based software company, migrated its own server infrastructure to the cloud last year and has since seen customer demand for the same grow.

“We moved office and, as a result, were faced with the task of moving all of our existing servers to our new facility,” Rob Thomas, MEDIAL’s founder, told “We looked at the total cost of ownership associated with running our own data centre and decided to move to the cloud. Our customers, who have traditionally hosted our application themselves, seem to be following suit. That being said, neither us or them can be sure of the green credentials of the cloud.”

The report expanded its remit this year to include East Asian internet giants such as Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba and Naver. It highlighted the lack of access to renewable energy through monopoly utilities as a major obstacle for the region.

“Without key policy changes, the rapid growth of the internet in East Asia will likely be powered by coal and other dirty sources of electricity,” said the report.

By James Fitzgerald