How Tech Giants Like Google and Amazon Are Building Up Renewable Energy for Their Data Centers

By June 9, 2019Green Energy

The push for action on climate change and the adoption of clean energy has really taken the world by storm in the past few years. The situation has gotten dire and according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change there’s really not much time to spare. The world needs to experience a transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean, renewable, and carbon-free energy generation. 

The push for a clean energy transition has taken many forms, from political debate to initiatives to encourage individual responsibility to focus on saving energy and using cleaner energy. While partisan gridlock frustratingly gets in the way of some of the most meaningful action we could be seeing and individual commitment to these goals can only move the needle so far, there’s one segment of the market that can and luckily is making large and impactful commitments to renewable energy: large corporations. 

Many large corporations are largely being called out for their negative impacts on the climate and lack of swiftness in responding to these threats, concerns which are all too valid because of their immense size and ability to single-handedly contribute a devastating carbon footprint. The other side of the coin is, though, is that these corporations are also of the scale that if any one of them that unilaterally chooses to invest in renewable energy it can dramatically increase the market for such technologies and make a real difference on how green an areas energy mix can be.

In particular, tech giants are at the forefront of corporations making meaningful change to their energy mix. These super companies have the scale needed to make an impact, an understanding of the technical needs behind renewable energy, and largely a mission to improve the world. Not only that, but when you factor in the direct energy needs coming from these companies the opportunity for embracing renewable energy is immense. Rarely is that more evident than when looking at data centers, the heart of many of these tech giants and home to sometimes unimaginable amounts of electronics and energy. To see how tech giants are embracing the challenge of powering their data centers and shifting them into opportunities to support the renewable energy sector, walking through the ‘Big Four’ tech companies provides an easy starting point:

Apple

Starting in spring of 2018, Apple announced it was running 100% on renewable energy. When any company makes this claim, not to mention one as massive and global as Apple, it’s important to raise a skeptical eyebrow and actually dig into the claims. As is the case with Apple and many other companies that make sweeping claims today, what they typically mean is that they are being powered partly by renewable energy but they are still getting power from the same grid as you and me, the grid that has natural gas and coal as a significant portion of it. The difference, though, is Apple will pay for renewable energy credits (RECs) that offset the amount of energy they’re using, and this payment goes directly to renewable energy sources feeding into the grid as a way to support and help those sources grow. It’s a similar idea as paying for carbon offsets to say you’re carbon neutral– it’s not true in reality, but it’s a positive action when looking at the accounting practices.

That said, Apple has made great strides with regard to its data centers and getting them directly powered by renewable energy. They operate a number of massive data centers located in fairly remote areas (where the land is available and affordable for the massive footprint needed) and rather than connect those far-off locations to the grid, they take efforts to build up renewable energy generation sources in the area of their data centers and bring that energy directly to be used in the data center. These arrangements offset what would be a large source of power demand on the grid associated with significant amounts of carbon emissions. 

Google

Google similarly requires unthinkably large data centers to run its massive data-based operations. In an effort to minimize the negative impact of these of power use, Google announced in 2017 that they achieved the milestone of purchasing 100% renewable energy to match its global consumption operations, notably its data centers and offices. This means Google is taking the same sort of ‘short cut’ to claim 100% renewable in purchasing the energy even though the power delivered to its operations are not actually generated differently from those of its neighbors, but they do note that they have “a solar farm on our Belgian data center site.” Recognizing that data centers aren’t always located in the same place as where they can build renewable energy generation they don’t claim that they’ll get to 100% data centers powered by renewables, but they recognize the challenges and their worldwide footprint is large enough that their efforts are making enormous strides and setting an example for other companies. 

Amazon 

Amazon notes that sustainability is part of its core mission, including aspects like optimizing delivery routes to minimize transportation emissions to using more recyclable materials. Despite being known as the ‘buy anything’ store, one of Amazon’s core competencies in the tech world is Amazon Web Services (AWS), which operate as data centers and cloud options for companies around the globe. Because of the pervasiveness of AWS, the energy used to power Amazon’s data centers is one of the most significant IT power draws in the world. Recognizing the responsibility that comes with this power, Amazon has committed to achieving 100% renewable energy usage for their global infrastructure and has reached over 50% of that goal by 2018. Notably, Amazon has nine renewable energy projects across the world with several more on the way that are expected to generate over 2,700,000 megawatthours of renewable energy each year, or enough to power 262,000 U.S. homes. The impact of these projects is direct and empowers small businesses across the world to use AWS and know their person data center footprint is increasingly renewable. 

Facebook

Lastly, social media company Facebook is also completely reliant on its data centers for business operations and its offerings to customers. As such, Facebook advertises that their data centers are contracted for 100% renewable energy, having already exceeded 50% in 2018 on its way to 100% by 2020. Facebook is achieving this goal in the similar method as the other tech giants, by commissioning wind and solar projects that would otherwise not have been built, even though those projects won’t be wired to directly power the Facebook data centers. That said, in 2018 alone Facebook funded a gigawatt of renewable energy and is likewise showing what the proper investment by a corporation in renewable energy might look like. You may not love the content you see posted by that girl you used to know in high school, but you can rest easy knowing the data center those unsavory memes are housed on are funding renewable energy projects!

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Ocean based server farms, powered by wave or wind and using deep water for cooling might not be just net zero but negative if the artificial upwelling created promotes biological carbon takeup.

    • Matt Chester says:

      Thanks for sharing, Christopher. That concept sounds really fascinating– really embracing the type of creative innovation that could change the game. Do you have any recommended reading on the topic?

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