With the rapid rise of streaming online video, technology companies need to queue up better plans for drawing electricity from renewable sources or risk continuing to contribute to climate change, according to a new report from the environmental group Greenpeace.
“While there may be some significant environmental and carbon benefits from moving much of our lives online,” like telecommuting instead of physically commuting, for instance, the report notes, “this explosive growth in our digital lives requires massive amounts of electricity, particularly for the data centers that serve as the factories of the digital economy.”
The report, released Tuesday, identifies what the group sees as companies striving to be environmentally responsible and others that need to work harder on making sure their data centers, the locks and levees of the internet, draw power from green sources. And change is pressing, Greenpeace argues, noting that if “if the Internet were a country, its electricity demand would currently rank sixth” worldwide.
Making electricity in ways that rely on carbon intensive fossil fuels contributes to a warming, changing climate worldwide, scientists say, melting polar ice and increasing sea levels with potentially catastrophic consequences.
And the Internet’s appetite for energy is growing. Greenpeace’s report forecasts that global demand will increase by half a trillion kilowatts a year by 2017, with the biggest rise in the networks that connect devices themselves. Streaming video will account for much of this growth, Greenpeace said, accounting for about 76 percent of all internet traffic by 2018.
The report grades major technology companies in terms of their use of different sources of power, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables. Amazon, Oracle and Hewlett Packard get failing or weak scores across the board for transparency of energy sources and commitment to greening up their act. Facebook and Apple get mostly A’s, while Microsoft earns C’s.
"Apple has used solar the most, with large solar deployments in North Carolina, Nevada, California and Arizona," Gary Cook, one of the authors of the study, told Al Jazeera by email. "Apple has also purchased wind for its Oregon and California data centers and has also purchased a micro-hydroelectric facility near its Oregon data center."
Consumers have been central to getting companies to change their ways, Cook added.
"As more companies hear from their customers, we believe more will commit to entering the race to build a renewably powered internet," he said.
But a lack of transparency, Greenpeace says, undermines claims by companies that they are committed to clean energy use.
“Without knowing the details of Amazon’s energy footprint, it’s difficult for customers to take its recent commitment to 100% renewable energy seriously. Amazon is one of the last large IT companies not to disclose any information about its energy use or carbon footprint,” the report states.
Greenpeace doesn’t just single out companies for criticism. It also looks at states and countries where technology companies have plugged in their businesses. Utility monopolies in Virginia, North Carolina and Taiwan, all data center hubs, fail to include renewable sources for their customers, Greenpeace said.
There are also steps that ordinary Internet users can take to reduce the impact of their browsing and streaming. "On the consumer side, having energy efficient computer and home network gear are important for reducing their energy use while online," he said.