When Green Means Tunnel Vision…

(Happy Earth Day everyone…)

Occasionally, staunch environmentalists make a good point or two. But in many cases, despite their enthusiasm for the term “sustainability”, they’re just not willing to look at the big picture. Case in point? Greenpeace recently released a scorecard for the “green-ness” of datacenters operated by the world’s cloud computing behemoths. Here it is:

Greenpeace's flawed cloud computing green-ness report card

“So what’s the problem?” you might ask… According to a Greenpeace quote highlighted by Boy Genius Report, everyone’s favorite eco-terrorism troupe based their siting scores on the typical sources of electricity for the states where the datacenters are located. But if we’re going to talk genuine “sustainability” (which, by the way, eco-nuts are completely uninterested in) then you’ve got to consider a lot more factors than just the makeup of the power grid sources in a particular host state.

If we take a look at an infographic from the ever-so-transparently-named CoolerPlanet, we can see just how “green” the electricity sources in each US state are:

So greener is always better, right? Not necessarily. Greenpeace specifically bad-mouthed Apple for choosing to locate its newest datacenter in North Carolina, where the energy supply is notoriously un-green. But what were their alternatives? A California site would expose the datacenter to earthquake risks – and I’m sure your neighborhood Greenpeace operative isn’t keen on downtime for their favorite iDevice. Coastal Texas isn’t really an option due to the risk of severe weather. That leaves inland Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and New York.

“Great, relocate there!” say our tree-hugging friends. Not so fast – remember that inland Texas can throw down a wicked heat gauntlet in the summer, while Oregon, Washington and New York get downright frigid in the winters. The DOE estimates that almost half of a typical datacenter’s energy consumption is used for climate control – what happens to that number when the ambient temperature is well over 100°F? Or -10°F? Suddenly, choosing a comfortably-temperate and relatively disaster-free state like North Carolina or Virginia – despite the un-greenness of their energy supplies – doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I’m sure the stewards of these datacenters would much rather not use as much as 10X the total energy – along with all it’s concomitant transmission inefficiencies – and keep their overall consumption low.

When you start factoring in second-order causes and effects – such as the environmental impact of pulling power, water, fiber and vehicle conduits into remote places, landfill and recycling capacities, employee commute emissions, construction impact – the sites that Apple, Google, Facebook and others have chosen start to look even better. As is almost always the case, monovariatic analysis in pursuit of a pre-selected conclusion falls flat on its face when a bigger-picture view is considered.

Unfortunately, datacenters consume a lot of energy. Choosing their sites carefully – not only based on energy sources but also based on consumption – can reduce this. The people whose jobs, reputations and employers’ solvency are on the line have no choice but to look at the big picture. Ultimately the true solution for Greenpeace’s gripes is likely for them (and the rest of us) to give up their iPhones and App Stores – but then – how would they coordinate their naval blocades, nuclear power plant break-ins and cargo ship boardings?

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