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New Data Debunks Clean Energy Claims by Apple, Amazon, Google

Jim Pierobon's picture
Owner Pierobon & Partners LLC

Former Chief Energy Writer and Correspondent for the Houston Chronicle; SVP for Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide; External communications chief for the American Council On Renewable Energy...

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  • Feb 17, 2016 4:26 pm GMT
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data centers and actual energy usage

Recent claims by owners of large data centers that a large part of their operations are powered by renewable energy have skeptics coming out of from under their solar panels. Now, there is hard data proving that skepticism is valid.

A recent report by Lux Research casts a large shadow on some data centers’ clean-energy claims. Scientists at Lux Research found the data centers frequently draw on far more coal-fired power with its much higher emissions than renewables. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple should be careful about the claims they make, lest they come across partly as PR stunts.

“They aren’t doing as much as they claim about sourcing their electricity,” said Ory Zik, Lux Vice President of Analytics.

Data centers throughout the country need a lot of power to run 24/7. They cannot rely on the intermittent supplies that come from solar and wind energy systems. As a result, they must draw electricity from the regional power grid. Solar and wind systems they have deployed or are developing can help supply renewable power to their centers and to power grids. But they supply nowhere near enough electricity on their own to run operate data centers reliably full-time.

Lux histogram v2To determine the roles that various fuels play in powering data centers, Lux scientists divided the U.S. grid into 134 regions with data that is updated monthly by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (see the chart above). This compares to the 24 regions in the “eGrid” dataset that center operators currently rely on, which is updated only annually, most recently in 2012.

“We found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven data centers, in particular in its Berkeley County, South Carolina, location,” Zik said. As a result, the emissions Google is linked to are likely larger than they estimate by 42,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s the equivalent of about 8,500 additional SUVs on the road.

Zik said Amazon’s claims are off-base in 23 of its data centers in Virginia. Furthermore, the online retailer and Web services company is less than transparent about how it calculates its emissions, Zik continued. Those 23 centers use electricity from a grid that is powered 43 percent by coal, not 35 percent as inferred using the eGrid data set. This difference amounts to 85,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year more, or about 5,000 households’ worth of emissions, according to Lux.

“We’ve made a lot of progress on this commitment,” Amazon claims on its website. “As of April 2015, approximately 25 percent of the power consumed by our global infrastructure comes from renewable energy sources. By the end of 2016, we intend to reach 40 percent.”

On its site, Google says “We’re currently using renewable energy to power 37 percent of our operations and expect this to increase significantly in the next two years. In fact in our 2015 White House Climate Pledge, we commit to tripling our purchases of renewable energy by 2025.”

Amazon, Google and their industry brethren got their first dose of ‘heat’ on the subject in 2011 when Greenpeace grabbed what data were available at the time and issued its How Dirty is your Data report. The authors tried to shame the companies into using their relative wealth, transformative technology and corporate cultures to supply their operations with renewables.

Perhaps, then, there was an overreaction by PR-minded executives looking to get ahead of any controversy. But data tools such as Lux’s areApple text box v3 catching up with them.

So, what’s their story now? Neither Google, Amazon nor Apple was willing to comment for the record by press time.

Alex Epstein, a contributor to Forbes and author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” took a shot at Apple last month here, criticizing it for “energy accounting sleight-of-hand” by “concealing that the vast majority of computer energy use comes from coal-powered manufacturing and the coal-powered Internet.”

After a quick search, Apple has since yanked one graphic from its website cited by Epstein but this text, in the adjacent box, remains on the site.

Power supplied to the grid in many parts of the country earns renewable energy certificates, or RECs for short. Those credits place a monetary value on every megawatt-hour of renewable electricity solely for its environmental attributes. The credits are meant to boost the value of renewable energy systems among participating states. But they should not be confused with actual electricity generation. The values of credits fluctuate with market forces. They can be traded among owners in states with renewable energy requirements. Too often, data center operators fail to make that distinction.

“With the tools now available, it’s time for data center owners to bring their energy decisions the same data-driven rigor they use in the rest of their businesses,” Zik said.

Looking at the big picture, the fact that Amazon, Apple, Google and others are striving for cleaner and more sustainable energy supplies should be commended. That said, if they want to claim it, they should back it up in step with their current business practices. As among the largest electricity users on the plant, they are leading by example. Let’s hope they just keep the cart behind the horse and be more transparent in justifying their claims.

Something else to note: Data going back to 2012 does not capture the quickly evolving generation landscapes in many states due to growth in natural gas and solar and the closure of dozens of coal plants. That alone should provide a more accurate picture.

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Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Feb 17, 2016

RECs are just a shell game in which those who pay for the virtue of using “renewable energy” (whether they use it where and when it’s actually generated and available, or not) can tout their Green credentials while other people get stuck with the blame and/or higher electric rates due to mal-distributed grid costs.  It looks an awful lot like the sale of indulgences.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Feb 20, 2016

These organizations are driving the shift to renewables through large commitments of REC purchases.  While one can argue with their accounting of their claims in terms of percentage of their power use, their enormous impact on the use of renewables is indisputable.  Their actions are resulting in renewables being deployed at scale.  This is an important contribution to the evolution of and increased use of carbon free renewables. 

The Lux piece is interesting.  If correct, it appears to be more a condemnation of the EPA system than Apple or Google.  Further, their (Apple and Google) use of an existing tracking mechanism (the REC market) is very reasonable given its wide acceptance.  However, with renewables transitioning from negligible niche producer to a scale sufficient to impact operations, it does make sense to revisit the REC model.  But to do that without looking at and adjusting the overall utility billing model is absurd.  First and foremost there needs to be uniform Time of Use metering so that customers have price signals for their generation.  2nd, with sound alternatives, utilities need to pay for their externalities. 

Utilities are the current day Cliven Bundy’s, using resources without paying for them and then turning and claiming entitlement.  It is time they pay to pollute, they pay to create carbon, they pay to rip up mountains and permanently destroy water sheds.  These are huge costs to society.  RECs in their current form are a crude way of leveling the playing field.  They should not be unilaterally removed.   

The current REC market was put in place at a time when renewables were a tiny fraction of the total market and had no impact on utility operations.  In that environment it was fair to simply measure the renewables impact on an energy basis.  As renewables reach scale sufficient to impact operations it makes sense to revisit how we measure the operational impact of the renewables.  But not unilaterally.  The other market distortions are so baked in that people often forget to include them in the discussion.  Unless and until they are addressed, the urgency of tackling the REC market is misplaced.  The PUCs and utilities also must come to the table and adjust their practices or we will simply revert back to a 20th century grid that favors environmentally unfriendly approaches to power generation.

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