Greenpeace today released a report that claims to "dig up the dirt" on the rapidly growing chunk of the world's energy being consumed by datacenters and large IT companies.
Naturally, they are publicizing it over the internet.
Greenpeace has a partial point here. The web and computers do consume quite a bit of power. Datacenters account for 3 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. and nearly 1.5 percent to 2 percent worldwide. Energy consumption in these sectors is growing at 12 percent a year. And these industries could stand to buy more renewable power.
"If the internet was a country, it would rank 5th for the amount of electricity usage, just below Japan and above Russia. But unlike geographical states, the internet's datacenters can be found all over the world, clustering in locations that offer strong tax incentives and cheap, but often dirty, electricity," the report states.
Approximately 53 percent of Facebook's electricity comes from coal, it adds.
These are all interesting points, but here is what the organization is underplaying in its report: The growth in web activity and at datacenters comes because the IT industry is subsuming activities that in the past consumed far more fossil fuels. A study out of Stanford University states that the shift from CDs to digital downloads has cut the energy required in delivering music to customers by 40 percent to 80 percent. Think of all of those plastic jewel cases you no longer need.
Videoconferencing has allowed Microsoft to cut its travel budget by 30 percent per capita. SAP's videoconferencing system paid for itself within a year in plane tickets to Frankfurt that didn't have to be bought.
Paper? E-books, electronic ticketing, digital photo sharing sites and other technologies have certainly reduced the need for chopping down trees, hauling logs, chewing them into pulp and then shipping the hefty end-products thousands of miles. That two percent is a downright bargain.
The IT industry, moreover, has been one of the more aggressive in adopting clean technologies. Yahoo opened an energy-efficient data center last year near Buffalo, New York that requires virtually no mechanical air conditioning.
Partly, the interest in green technology derives from intellectual curiosity and personal beliefs: many of Google's investments and efforts do seem to stem from motives beyond boosting the bottom line. Ironically, today Google also announced it would buy 100 megawatts of wind power from NextEra Energy.
But most companies view energy efficiency as a way to make money and expand market share. Simply put, if Dell can sell more energy-efficient servers than HP and establish a better ROI, Dell can sell more hardware.
Electricity now often consumes a larger portion of operating budgets at datacenters than anything else. When virtualization first began to gain popularity in the early 2000s, it was seen as a way to economize on hardware. Now, virtualization is seen as a way to reduce onerous power bills.
A lot of hardware, software and networking equipment developed for datacenters and servers will migrate to building automation systems too, curbing even more power. Microsoft has begun to look into developing tools for managing commercial buildings.
Some companies have also realized that going green helps with recruiting. One AMD exec told me a few years back that new recruits often asked about the company's LEED platinum design center in Texas. It was an unanticipated selling point.
Granted, the industry is not perfect. As Sentilla's Joe Polastre pointed out last year, the top 40 internet retailers probably spend $110 million more on power during the holiday shopping season than they should. Facebook's 53 percent reliance on coal is a little high: the U.S. now only gets around 45 percent of its power from coal.
But Facebook recently unfurled a server it designed on its own that consumes 38 percent less power than the off-the-shelf models the company previously used, thanks to components like the customized power supplies and slow-turning fans. It also started running its datacenter on DC power. Both the server and datacenter design are yours for free under the Open Compute Project.
One could argue that datacenters often give rise to unproductive activities. Every time a YouTube video plays, a chunk of coal somewhere gets burned. True, but waste is endemic. Lighting consumes 21 percent of the electricity in the U.S. -- and you can probably walk down the hall right now and find illuminated offices with no one inside.
So why is Greenpeace highlighting datacenters? Who knows? Perhaps the practices of Apple and Facebook make better headlines than those of Toyo Chemical Industries. IT industries also tend to respond more quickly to these sort of reports than mining companies in Ukraine.
Besides, it certainly will help Greenpeace's web traffic.