Green Data Centers: Tech Giants Pioneer Path to Renewable Energy

Apple. Google. Facebook. Amazon.

Pillars of the Information Age, these are some of the most iconic and profitable companies of our time, having revolutionized how we connect, learn, work and conduct our daily lives within the last decade. And now they are helping to lead the way towards a powerful shift on the horizon for society: widespread clean, renewable energy. 

Increasingly, these titans of tech are powering their extensive global infrastructure with significant amounts of renewable energy, and in doing so are blazing a trail towards a future that is run primarily on clean, abundant and inexhaustible resources.

Alta Wind Energy Center. Credit: Terra-Gen Power

Alta Wind Energy Center. Credit: Terra-Gen Power.

As people around the world gain access to the internet in increasing numbers, the need to store information such as pictures, videos, emails or e-commerce operations is also growing. All of this new digital data must be physically stored somewhere, which is mostly efficiently accomplished in huge data centers. The server farms inside data centers require significant amounts of cooling to be able to operate effectively, which makes these centers extremely energy-intensive.  For example, U.S. data centers used enough electricity in 2013 to power New York City twice over.

Google Server Farm. Credit: theblaze.com and Google.

Google Server Farm. Credit: Google.

Many of the most desirable locations for data centers are in states like Utah, North Carolina and Ohio, which are administered by governments and powered by regional utilities who have typically been recalcitrant towards supporting renewables and skeptical of their viability. When organizations like Google, Apple, Facebook or eBay arrive in these regions, requesting access for clean electricity to power their massive, billion-dollar data center projects, both governments and utilities have in several instances shifted their antiquated laws and attitudes.

Thus, by wielding their significant social clout and financial heft, big tech companies are able to open grids to clean electricity, demonstrate that going green goes hand in hand with commerce, and win support for renewables in local communities, whose schools, farms, hotels, restaurants and municipalities reap the economic benefits of wind, solar, hydro, biogas and geothermal power. 

Apple

In early 2015, Apple announced it had struck a $848 million deal with First Solar to purchase 130 megawatts (MW) of solar energy, enough to power every one of its California offices, retail stores, data center and its planned Campus 2 complex still under construction. The contract with First Solar constituted the largest purchase of solar power ever by a commercial entity, and sealed Apple’s place as the green leader amongst the upper echelon of tech. 

Apple already runs its U.S. data centers on 100% renewable energy, and this figure is up to 87% globally for its other data centers. In China, Apple is developing 40 MW of solar resources across two farms in Sichuan Province that will generate more clean electricity annually than all its 19 offices and 22 retail stores in that country will use in a year. Apple also plans to work with the World Wildlife Fund to protect and sustainably manage 1 million acres of forest in China to ensure its net impact globally on forests is zero. 

Apple's Concentrated Solar PV Farm. Credit: Sunpower.

Concentrated Solar PV farm owned by Apple. Credit: Sunpower.

Google

Google also intends to eventually run on 100% renewable energy, but is only at 35% currently. However, the search giant has invested over $2 billion in projects deploying wind and solar generation totaling 2.5 gigawatts (GW).

These projects include: partially funding Ivanpah Generating Station in the Mojave Desert, the largest concentrated solar thermal project in the world; bankrolling at least 25,000 residential solar installations via industry leader SolarCity; paying for a 37.5% equity stake to pay for crucial early stage development of transmission lines to support offshore wind along the Mid-Atlantic coast; and as an investor in the nation’s largest wind farm in California.

In addition to its renewable energy goals and investments, Google has directly bought two intriguing start-ups. 

Makani Power in 2013, a company creating an energy-harvesting kite or flying wing that hovers at higher altitudes than conventional turbines, where the wind is stronger and more consistent. Using a kite design earns huge savings on materials and associated costs.

And a year later in 2014, Google purchased Nest, a smart thermostat company that learns homeowners patterns, and programs itself according, which can save significant amounts of both energy and money that would otherwise be wasted.

Google's Makani Flying Wing. Credit: Google/Makani Power.

Google’s Makani Flying Wing. Credit: Google/Makani Power.

Facebook

Like Apple and Google, Facebook has made strides in greening its operations. Facebook currently powers itself with 25% renewable energy, and has committed itself to 100% over the long term. An area where the social media company has been a leader is in optimizing data center design, creating the Open Compute Project (OCP) in 2011 as a transparent platform to foster collaboration and innovation.

In particular, OCP designs have led to impressive gains in energy efficiency at Facebook’s Prineville, Oregon data center. Facebook was able to run the server farm in Prineville using 38% less energy and reducing operating costs by 24%, which equates to preventing the equivalent carbon emissions of 50,000 cars for one year, since Facebook initiated OCP designs in 2011. 

Facebook’s European data center in Lulea, Sweden applies the same OCP efficiency measures as Prineville, but is run completely on zero-emission hydroelectric power and is 70% less energy intensive. Lulea is near the Arctic Circle, and nearly always cold. This allows frigid air from outside to be used to cool the servers instead of massive in-house air conditioning, which is typically the most energy-consumptive aspect of a data center.

Facebook has utilized the same approach at its Altoona, Iowa data center, except there it is 100% powered by the great winds of the Heartland, supplied by Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy. In both Altoona and Lulea, Facebook plans to create additional data centers. 

Hybrid Solar on Facebook HQ. Credit: GigaOm.

Hybrid Solar on Facebook HQ. Credit: GigaOm.

Amazon

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the largest cloud service in the world, used by notables like Netflix, Pinterest, the Huffington Post, Tumblr and about 1 million other customers who make up its 28% share of the cloud storage market. AWS is the $5 billion arm of Amazon, according to Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and continues rapid expansion, growing at 51% last year. 

Given its prominence in energy-intensive data storage, AWS undoubtedly has a huge carbon footprint. Half of its data centers are located in Virginia, where power provider Dominion Resources is almost entirely gas, nuclear and coal from nearby Appalachia. As such, AWS and its parent Amazon have been severely criticized by Greenpeace for its lack of transparency, large share of dirty energy use, and absence of a meaningful plan to switch to renewable energy. 

Clinch River Power Plant, Virginia. Credit: CircleofBlue.org.

Clinch River Power Plant, Virginia. Credit: CircleofBlue.org.

In November 2014, Amazon announced “a long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure footprint”, while claiming it has already reached 25% renewable generation and is aiming for at least 40% by 2016. Two months later, Amazon signed a deal to purchase 150 MW of wind power in Illinois with Pattern Energy.

Still, transparency about energy use and procurement or a roadmap for transitioning to clean power were absent. In response, many of AWS’ largest cloud customers signed a letter requesting Amazon be more committed to transparency and clarity on where it sources electricity for its data centers from. and how it intends to meet its 100% renewable goal. 

Not long after, Amazon reached an agreement with Community Energy to buy power from an 80 MW solar plant to be built in Virginia. In a state with a mere 15 MW of existing solar due to poor policy support, rather than a lack of sunlight, this is a big project. However, Greenpeace was quick to point out that this solar farm likely only equates to about 4% of AWS’ total energy use in Virginia, when effective generating capacity is taken into account. 

Breaking Down the Doors to Clean Energy Access

While Amazon has not acted decisively or openly about greening its data centers until recently, the challenges in cleaning up the cloud are, unfortunately, not so simple as IT companies changing their behavior. This is an important first step, but in many cases the biggest hurdles are state and local laws, as well as regional utilities. Lets consider a few examples. 

North Carolina’s “data corridor” hosts centers for Apple, Google, Facebook, Disney and AT&T, among others. For a number of reasons, the Tar Heel state is a good choice: cheap, dirty power; inexpensive land; not overly hot or humid; plenty of water to run data centers, and so on. 

In North Carolina, the renewable energy aspirations of Apple quickly ran into resistance. The regional utility which handles electricity generation and distribution, Duke Energy, has resisted developing renewable generation or offering it as a premium option. It doesn’t help that doing so would have been illegal: state laws ban the sale of clean energy to commercial customers. 

Unfazed, as one might expect this resurgent, wildly successful company of the last decade to be, Apple decided to simply build its own renewable generation in North Carolina. In Maiden, N.C. Apple has built out 40 MW of solar generation, with another 17.5 MW farm planned, and also has a 10 MW fuel cell cluster running on clean biogas. 

Solar farm powering Apple's nearby data center in N.C. Credit: Apple and GigaOm.

Solar farm powering Apple’s nearby data center in N.C. Credit: Apple and GigaOm.

Duke Energy was left high and dry by Apple, having missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars for its recalcitrance to renewables and not seeking to influence North Carolina’s backwards policy of refusing to offer clean generation commercially.

Its likely no accident that Duke changed course in late 2013, lobbied by Google in particular, and officially filed with state regulators to request permission to legally sell clean power to large companies demanding it. In September 2014, Duke announced it was acquiring and constructing three solar projects, and purchasing power from five others. The total investment was $500 million, the largest amount Duke has ever spent on renewables. 

Similar to North Carolina, Utah did not allow businesses to buy and feed back electricity from renewable energy sources into the grid, until eBay came to town. eBay was planning its first data center in South Jordan, but did not want the center powered by Utah’s electrical grid, which is derived from 94% coal. eBay sought to change Utah’s policy framework in order to meet its sustainability goals and secure fixed energy pricing that it viewed as economically favorable over the long term. 

Working with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including the state utility Rocky Mountain Power, Data Center Pulse, renewable energy developers, industrial interests and Republican Senator Mark Madsen, eBay spearheaded Senate Bill 12. SB 12 passed unanimously and was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert in March 2012. 

As a result, eBay is able to power its data center in South Jordan with solar, biogas fuel cell storage and renewable energy sourced elsewhere, and is planning a second data center. Utah gets around 3,700 well-paying jobs, new tax revenue and opens its grid to other commercial users who prioritize clean power. 

Fuel cells at eBay data center. Credit: GigaOm.

Fuel cells at eBay data center. Credit: GigaOm.

Amazon can take inspiration from these examples, and apply them to its current conundrum in Ohio, where it is planning a $1.1 billion data center in Dublin. In this bellwether state, Amazon’s commitment to renewable energy for its cloud services will collide with Ohio’s recent freeze on its clean energy standards and prohibitive legislation requiring a setback on wind power development.

Ohio has been one of the few places where efforts funded by the Koch brothers, and led by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity, have succeeded in stalling policies supporting renewable energy development. 

The result has been less prosperity for Americans, less freedom to choose our sources of energy, more monopolization of electrical supply and the continuation of corporate socialism for fossil fuel companies, who pass on the true costs-asthma, cancer, water pollution, mountain top removal, global warming-on to us. 

There are glimmers of hope. Republican Representatives Toney Burkley and Tim Brown introduced House Bill 190, which would allow local counties to make their own decisions on the wind setback law. If passed, this bill would allow counties, wind developers and Amazon (or other companies interested in clean power) to coordinate power procurement on their own. 

Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and other tech companies are not alone in seeking clean energy, but rather just the leading edge of a much broader trend of the biggest businesses going green. 60% of Fortune 100 companies have goals for renewable energy or greenhouse gas reductions, while 43% of Fortune 500 organizations have similar targets.  

The question for Ohio, ever an indicator of the nation as a whole, is whether it will side with the growing, prosperous, clean economy that the most innovative, profitable and dynamic corporations of our time are demanding, or continue with the grey, toxic, antiquated, monopolistic economy of the past.

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