Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coal powered Internet causing climate change

The report "Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change" (Greenpeace, 30 March 2010) warns that the growth of Internet use could cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately the case in the report is undermined by the way the report is distributed: as a very poorly formatted, inefficient PDF document. The report is a 24 page 7 Mbyte PDF document. The document is therefore about 10 times larger than it need be and will be generating 10 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as a properly designed document would.

While Greenpeace make a good argument about powering data centres from renewable energy, a far greater reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved much more quickly and cheaply by making the applications running in those data centres more efficient. Greenpeace might like to lead by example, and commit to efficient online documents.
The announcement of Apple’s iPad has been much anticipated by a world with an ever-increasing appetite for mobile computing devices as a way to connect, interact, learn and work. As rumours circulated – first about its existence and then about its capabilities - the iPad received more media attention than any other gadget in recent memory. Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs finally showcased his company’s latest creation before a rapt audience in San Francisco. From their smart phones and netbooks, the crowd feverishly blogged and tweeted real time updates out to a curious world.

Whether you actually want an iPad or not, there is no doubt that it is a harbinger of things to come. The iPad relies upon cloud-based computing to stream video,
download music and books, and fetch email. Already, millions access the ‘cloud’ to make use of online social networks, watch streaming video, check email and create documents, and store thousands of digital photos online on popular web-hosted sites like Flickr and Picasa.

The term cloud, or cloud computing, used as a metaphor for the internet, is based on an infrastructure and business model whereby - rather than being stored on your own device - data, entertainment, news and other products and services are delivered to your device, in real time, from the internet. The creation of the cloud has been a boon both to the companies hosting it and to consumers who now need nothing but a personal computer and internet access to fulfill most of their computing needs.

Google is perhaps the most famous cloud-based company to demonstrate the potential of a cloud platform to drive a hugely successful business model. All of Google’s signature products - Gmail, Google Documents and Google Earth - are delivered from the cloud.

Its ambitious project to create a digital library will be entirely hosted by servers storing most of the world’s published work, all in digitised form.

The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern.With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy.

For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That ‘somewhere’ is data
centres - massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy.

But decisions about how the cloud will be built out are being made by business leaders primarily concerned with quarterly profit statements and earnings for shareholders.

Facebook vs. Yahoo

For example, in January 2010, Facebook commissioned a new data centre in Oregon and committed to a power service provider agreement with PacificCorp, a utility that gets the majority of its energy from coal-fired power stations, the United States’ largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Effectively becoming an industrial-scale consumer of electricity, Facebook now faces the same choices and challenges that other large ‘cloud-computing’ companies have in building their data centres.With a premium being placed on access to the cheapest electricity available on the grid. In many countries, this means dirty coal.

All the same, other companies have made better decisions for siting some of their data centres. Yahoo!, for instance, chose to build a data centre outside Buffalo, New York, that is powered by energy from a hydroelectric power plant - dramatically decreasing its carbon footprint. Google Energy, a subsidiary of cloud leader Google, applied and was recently approved as a regulated wholesale buyer and seller of electricity in the United States, giving it greater flexibility as to where it buys its electricity to power its data centres.

Brown cloud or green cloud?

Ultimately, if cloud providers want to provide a truly green and renewable cloud, they must use their power and influence to not only drive investments near renewable energy sources, but also become involved in setting the policies that will drive rapid deployment of renewable electricity generation economy-wide, and place greater R&D into storage devices that will deliver electricity from renewable sources 24/7. (See page 11 for prescriptive policy recommendations for IT companies.)

If we hope to phase out dirty sources of energy to address climate change, then - given the massive amounts of electricity needed in order to run computers, provide backup power and coordinate related cooling equipment that even energy-efficient data centres consume - the last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power. The potential of ICT technologies and cloud computing to drive low-carbon economic growth underscore the importance of building cloud infrastructure in places powered by clean renewable energy.

Companies like Facebook, Google, and other large players in the cloud computing market must advocate for policy change at the local, national and international levels to ensure that, as their appetite for energy increases, so does the supply of renewable energy.

I have always believed that IT is the engine of an efficient economy; it also can drive a greener one
Michael Dell, Forbes magazine

In 2008, The Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) issued SMART 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age.i The study highlighted the significant and rapidly growing footprint of the ICT industry and predicted that because of the rapid economic expansion in places like India and China, among other causes, demand for ICT services will quadruple by 2020.

SMART 2020 also found that:
  • PC ownership will quadruple between 2007 and 2020 to 4 billion devices, and emissions will double over the same period, with laptops overtaking desktops as the main source of global ICT emissions (22%).
  • Mobile phone ownership will almost double to nearly 5 billion accounts by 2020, but emissions will only grow by 4%. Broadband uptake will treble to almost 900 million accounts over the same period, with emissions doubling over the entire telecoms infrastructure.
The Smart 2020 study also made a compelling case for ICT’s significant potential to deliver climate and energy solutions, estimating that ICT technologies could cut 7.8 GtCO2 of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, a 15%reduction over business-as-usual projections. The study posits that innovations from the ICT sector - when combined with increased use of renewable energy - can put the world on a more sustainable path and help keep global temperature increase below the 2°C threshold scientists say is needed to hold off the worst effects of climate change.

table ommitted

How big is the carbon footprint of the Information Technology and Communication sector?

MtCO2e =Metric Tonne Carbon Dioxide Equivalent
GtCO2e = Gigatonne Carbon Dioxide Equivalent
i Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI)(2008). SMART
2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age. Available at

2010 has been touted by many in the ICT sector as the ‘Year of the Cloud’. While this is likely a prediction that will be repeated in subsequent years, the arrival of the iPad and growth in netbooks and other tablet computers, the launch of Microsoft’s Azure cloud services for business, and the launch of the Google phone and the proliferation of mobile cloud applications are compelling signs of a movement
towards cloud-based computing within the business sector and public consciousness in a way never seen before.

3 key trends in cloud-based computing
• Continued significant expansion of cloud-based computing despite economic downturn
• Greater attention and growth in deployment of energy-efficient data centres design
• Increased size and scale of data centres being built by major brands

Key questions for cloud-based computing data centre investment
• How big is the cloud in electricity consumption and GHG emissions and how big will it become?
• Where will the cloud be built and what sources of energy will be powering it?
• How may large data centres impact the surrounding load centre’s demand for fossil fuels?
• To what extent will efficiency and design improvements reduce the rate of growth?
table omitted

How much electricity or associated greenhouse gas pollution is currently produced or will be generated to power a much bigger cloud in 10 years? The answer is far from clear, given the rapid growth, and that many major cloud brands refuse to disclose their energy footprint.

The Smart 2020 analysis forecast that the global carbon footprint of the main components of cloud-based computing - data centres and the telecommunications network - would see their emissions grow, on average, 7%and 5%respectively each year between 2002-2020.
Underlying this analysis is the number of data centre servers growing on average 9%each year during this period.

Using the global analysis and forecast of the overall ICT emissions footprint in the Smart 2020 Report as a foundation, the following reports seeks to shine a fresh light on the electricity demand of the global cloud, highlighting the scale of the potential demand and importance of where and what sources of electricity are being used to power Facebook, Gmail, and other cloud-based computing platforms.

The first of the two adjustments were made to the analysis used in the Smart 2020 Report to disaggregate the projections for growth in the main components of cloud based computing, and place in context of electricity demand and renewable energy supply. The third adjustment incorporates some bottom up analysis of energy demand from data centres in the US, and the scale impact on the size of the overall electricity demand if more accurate estimation of the energy demand and GHG emissions associated with large data centres.To make the data of the report more accessible as an instrument to evaluate the projected impact of the cloud on electricity demand and their relationship to energy policies, the Smart 2020 analysis has been deaggregated to show overall electricity consumption as outlined below.

table omitted

The results available from the Smart 2020 Report are shown as tones of carbon emitted and not in energy units (e.g. electricity consumed kWh). The emission factors used come from McKinsey and Vanttefall Cost Curve, which are not disclosed in the report.

Using a publicly-known global factor for the global carbon intensity of electricity production,WRI’s CAITi, the equivalent electricity consumption is derived as shown in Table 2.

table omitted

Smart 2020 Adjustment #3:
Top-down vs. bottom-up adjustment for data
centre energy consumption
While the Smart 2020 report did a very credible top-down analysis of global data centre consumption, it is important to compare this with a bottom-up approach. Based on the 2007 bottom-up analysis conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the estimated electricity consumption of US data centres is 1.7 times larger than the top-down analysis by the Smart 2020 report estimated for the US and Canada combined. If this factor is to be applied to the global electricity consumption in Table 2, the data centres portion would go from the 194.2 to 330 billion kWh and, as consequence, the total cloud energy consumption (data centres plus telecommunications) would be 622.6 billion kWh -; a number that is 1.3 times larger than reported under the Smart 2020 report.

table omitted

Adjustment #3
Adjustment #1--reduction of scope of telecoms network reporting
Smart 2020 Adjustment #1:
Scope of Telecoms network reporting
The Smart 2020 Report provides carbon footprint figures in MtCO2e as a combination of two sources of emissions: indirect emissions from electricity use (scope 2) and indirect emissions from upstream
production (scope 3), or embodied carbon. To show electricity or energy use emissions separately, a correction factor [Scope 2/ (Scope 2+3)] will be applied as shown in the table for adjustment #1. This correction factor for Scope 2 is derived from the information provided on global internet footprint in the Smart 2020 Report, which includes PCs in addition to telecoms and data centres.

Mobile phones accounted for 43%of the carbon footprint of Telecoms. However, to keep the analysis focused on the infrastructure of the cloud and related energy consumption, the energy footprint of mobile phones will be subtracted, as PCs (desktops and laptops) are not counted in this analysis, phones
will be also subtracted. The 270 MtCO2e without mobile phones translates into 154 MTCO2 globally.

table omitted

Projected regional growth of data centres

Unless cloud data centres are strategically placed to utilise or be co-developed with renewable sources of electricity, the data centre operators are stuck with the same problem everybody has, and having to accept the mix of clean and dirty energy sources that the electric utilities rely upon to feed the grid.

Growth of energy-efficient data centers
More cloud-computing companies are pursuing design and siting strategies that can reduce the energy consumption of their data centres, primarily as a cost containment measure. For most companies, the environmental benefits of green data design are
generally of secondary concern.

Facebook’s decision to build its own highly-efficient data centre in Oregon that will be substantially powered by coal-fired electricity clearly underscores the relative priority for many cloud companies. Increasing
Key trends that will impact the environmental footprint of the cloud the energy efficiency of its servers and reducing the energy footprint of the infrastructure of data centres are clearly to be commended, but
efficiency by itself is not green if you are simply working to maximise output from the cheapest and dirtiest energy source available. The US EPA will soon be expanding its EnergyStar rating system to apply to data centres, but similarly does not factor in the fuel source being used to power the data centre in its rating criteria. Unfortunately, as our collective demand for computing resources increases, even the most
efficiently built data centres with the highest utilisation rates serve only to mitigate, rather than eliminate, harmful emissions.
table omitted

Yahoo! Data Center (Lockport, NY)
Yahoo! is currently building a $150 million US dollar data centre near Buffalo, New York, which will be completed in May 2010. The site was chosen in part due to the low cooling costs expected in the region and the ability to use fresh air cooling, as well as the ready access to lowcarbon and low-cost hydro power. The New York Power Authority has approved 10 megawatts of low-cost hydro power for a first phase of construction for a Yahoo! facility. A second phase, expected in the spring of 2012, would receive an additional five megawatts of power.

Apple Computer (North Carolina, US)
Last year, Apple began construction on a $1 billion US dollar data centre in western North Carolina, close to where Google also cited its recent data centre investment. North Carolina’s electricity production is
high. Coal-fired power plants account for about 60%of the State’s electricity generation, while the carbon intensity of the electricity generation in 2005 was 561.4 gCO2e/kWh.

Table omitted

Comparison of significant cloud data centres ...

From: "Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change", Greenpeace, 30 March 2010

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