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Published on November 11th, 2014 | by David Pomerantz


Unlike Other Tech Giants, Amazon Doubles Down on Coal

November 11th, 2014 by  

“Use the Web? Congrats! You’re an environmentalist.” So said a headline in the Washington Post last week, and with good reason: some of the biggest names behind the internet are powering their data centers with wind and solar power.

That’s important because the internet uses a lot of electricity. If the internet were a country, its electricity demand would rank as the sixth largest in the world.

The Washington Post story focused on search engines, and indeed Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are increasingly powering their data centers with wind power in places like Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas. But it’s not just search: Apple is powering its data centers, replete with all of our iTunes, with 100% renewable energy from wind, solar, geothermal, and microhydro power. Facebook is aiming for the same goal, and is purchasing massive quantities of wind power in Iowa to power our likes and shares in its data center there.

One company is sitting out of the race, and it’s a crucial one: Amazon.com.

Aside from being one of the most trafficked web sites in the world, Amazon also hosts much of the internet’s data via its massive Amazon Web Services (AWS) division, which handles the computing for sites and services like Netflix, Pinterest, Reddit, and AirBnB. According to one 2012 study, one third of all Internet users visit a web site based on Amazon’s infrastructure every day.

Unfortunately, Amazon, unlike Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, or Microsoft, has made no effort to power with green energy. And it may be getting even dirtier soon.

News has been trickling out all fall that Amazon’s next data center will be located in Ohio, one of the states in the US that is powered most heavily by coal. So just how much electricity will that facility use?

It’s impossible to answer that question precisely, since Amazon is notoriously secretive about its energy use, but we can make a decent estimate. The Columbus Dispatch reported last week that Amazon would invest $1.1 billion into the data center. To get from dollars to megawatts, we can make some assumptions and end up with a good estimate that Amazon’s Ohio data center would draw about 86 megawatts of power at full capacity. Here’s the math if you’re interested. Of course, we’d welcome Amazon to provide a more accurate estimate for its new data center’s power demand.

Just how much electricity is 86 MW? Well, according to the EPA, the average Ohio home draws 895 kWh/month. So Amazon’s new data center will add the same amount of demand to the grid as 70,000 Ohio homes. (More math)

That’s a lot of juice. If Amazon continues to sit on the sidelines of the green internet race and just default to use whatever power it gets off the grid, most of that electricity will come from coal-burning power plants. Ohio’s electricity mix was powered by 70% coal in 2013. The exact mix being offered in Central Ohio by the utility there, American Electric Power, is less clear, though it’s likely in the same range. A 2012 factbook from the company said its Ohio generating capacity was 88.2% powered by coal. (p39)

When other IT companies have built data centers in areas with similarly dirty electricity grids, they have taken matters into their own hands. In North Carolina, Apple is powering with on-site solar, and it, Google, and Facebook have teamed up to push the utility there, Duke Energy, to offer them more renewable options.

Amazon has options to do as much or more in Ohio. The Ohio State University, located just a few miles from any of the sites Amazon is rumored to be considering, entered a contract last year to buy 50 MW of wind to power much of its campus, saying that it owuld save $1 million a year in the process.  Amazon could ask AEP to provide it with more renewable energy options, or call on Ohio legislators to restore the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. The Campbell Soup company modeled that exact kind of positive political advocacy, in addition to building a 10 MW solar farm to power its factory.

So many tech companies are doing the right things to bring us a greener internet. As a Google spokesperson said in the Post story, “”Because we’ve purchased 1,000 megawatts of renewable wind energy for our data centers, you might say using Google is like kite-surfing the internet.”

Unfortunately, using Amazon, or any AWS-hosted site like Netflix or Pinterest, is currently like surfing the Internet on a barge full of coal. A company that has made innovation its hallmark should do better. It can start at its new facility in Ohio.

Image Credit: Nic Taylor (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license)

If you’re interested in the math: We assumed that 30% of the $1.1 billion investment is for non-IT related costs. We assumed every megawatt of IT demand costs $10 million. To determine how much additional electricity the data center will demand for non-IT related needs like cooling, we must assume its power usage effectiveness (PUE). Amazon does not disclose its pUE, but we assumed that this data center will have roughly the same PUE as Google’s average over the past 12 months for its data centers, which is 1.12 (a PUE of 1.0 would indicate 100% of electricity is used for IT power). So [($1.1 billion * .70)/ 10 million $/MW] * 1.12 PUE = 86 MW.

Math, part II: A data center that demands 86 MW when fully built and running 100% of the time, multiplied by 8,766 (the number of hours in a year), multiplied by 1,000 to get into kWh, means the facility would use 753,876,000 kWh/year, or 62,823,000 kWh/month. 62,823,000 kWh/month for a data center / 895 kWh/month for an average Ohio home means the data center would demand the equivalent of 70,193 homes.


About the Author

helps lead Greenpeace’s campaign for a 100% renewable energy future. He writes about how leading technology companies can embrace renewable energy to power the internet’s growing electricity demand, and how utilities should stop fighting and start embracing the growth of distributed renewable energy. Greenpeace is the leading independent environmental campaigning organization in the world. David has worked there since 2008, and blogs for Greenpeace here.

  • Parttimecynic

    You have to understand how the grid works first, then reassess the claims of other tech giant’s claims of 100% renewables. They can build a PV array the size of their estimated demand or pressure their utility to invest in wind, but the available power at any given time will never be 100% renewables, nor close to 100%. If you think your favorite company is on 100% renewables, ask how many are still attached to the grid (in the case of companies touting on site renewables), i understand that there is a need for redundancy in emergency situations, but see if you can find out their total consumption portfolio for any given day. It will never be 100% renewable or even close. “Right now wind is cheaper than all dirty energy sources. Solar is cheaper than all others except natural gas, which could be cheaper in some cases, but not in all cases.” As you talk about it being cheaper; if it was the cheapest option, and these corporations have stockholders to appease, wouldn’t they all be racing for renewables? Do you know why they’re not? One word: reliability. Every day there are variables with renewables, 100% nor 75% nor maybe even 50% of their demand can be achieved by renewables at any given moment, because renewables do not have the efficiency or reliability to meet the demand of a high tech giant. FB and google can say they are 100% renewable but all that means is that they have put their name on enough PV arrays and wind turbines to cover their footprint, but here in reality their consumptions of fossil/coal based fuels makes up a large portion if not majority of their portfolio on a daily basis. How much kW do you think they’re getting from that PV array at night? I guess they hope nobody gets on the internet at night…
    Don’t get me wrong, i’m pro renewable. Renewables are the answer to energy independence and environmental and fiscal nirvana. Imagine how many military bases we could shut down and deep sea rigs we could tear down if 100% renewables was a reality. My point is this, don’t tear down and sway people away from a business because their PR department isn’t as savvy as anothers. This type of article appeals to millinials that want to help but dont understand how the infastructure or technology work. Deeply slanted writing like this is not helpful for the cause. Their 100% renewable claims are a technicality but nowhere near a reality
    It’s not there yet. Renewables’ efficiency and reliablilty have to come a long way before a company (especially a 24/7 high tech company) can rely on 100% renewables 100% of the time.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “but the available power at any given time will never be 100% renewables”

      Sorry, that is incorrect. If a building installs a solar array large enough to supply it’s power there will be many hours in which all the electricity being used in that building will be coming from the solar array. Surplus power will be flowing to the grid. No grid power will be coming in.

      There are probably some other things you were trying to say, but I got bogged down in your mega-paragraph. Break your thoughts down into smaller units in order to increase communication. No one wants to wade through word mass.

      • parttimecynic

        You’re absolutely right about 100% renewable with solar for a few hours a day, I could have worded that better. My bigger point was exactly that, just because they can achieve 100% renewable for a couple hours doesn’t mean they should be able to claim they are absolutely 100% renewable. That leads peolpe to think that they NEVER use fossil/coal based fuels.

        These companies are striving for 100% NET renewable usage, but they are still relying on other mediums to meet their real time demand. Coal kWh at night and “Surplus power will be flowing to the grid. No grid power will be coming in” with PV kWh during the day.
        But those fossil/coal generation units will still be pumping emmissions into the atmosphere to power your “likes” when renewables can’t meet real time demand. That’s why I am interested in these companies day to day total consumption fuel portfolios. Please provide info if you know of any, i am genuinely interested to see them.

        Thank you for the constructive communication criticism, i’ll work on it, because you are right again: “There are probably some other things you were trying to say.”

        • Bob_Wallace

          I agree that the wording “100% carbon free” could be misunderstood. It is with some regularity.

          However if a company is generating as much clean electricity as they use, in total, then there is some legitimacy in “100% carbon free”. Their presence on the grid is causing the generation of zero carbon.

          While they use partially carbon-electricity during the non-sunny hours they offset the same amount of carbon-electricity during the sunny hours.

          If they shut down the amount of CO2 produced by electricity generation would not go down.

          It would be helpful if we had a short phrase that better described a business or house that was carbon-electricity net zero.

          • parttimecynic

            NET zero carbon is a great first step regardless of actual real time fuel portfolio, especially for huge power consumers. I’m hopeful that grid scale storage or another emerging technology will be the path to true “100% renewable” generation and consumption.
            Thank you for describing how NET zero carbon consumption actually works for the readers of this site who may not understand the grid side of power production and delivery. I think education is the key so people/consumers can understand what “100% renewable”
            actually means. Because I dont think they understand that these companies still use carbon based resources when necessary but offset others’ carbon based consumption when their renewables are providing a surplus. But bottom line: Emmissions and mining are still being supported by all grid users at this time if they are tied to the grid (some far more than others!).
            I look forward to the day when renewables become the most fiscally reasonable option including upfront costs and carbon emmissions are finished.
            Thanks for the good friendly debate Bob.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “I look forward to the day when renewables become the most fiscally reasonable option including upfront costs and carbon emmissions are finished.”

            Wind (without subsidies) is now our cheapest way to bring new generation on line.

            Installed Cost

            Onshore Wind $1.63/watt. (DOE 2013 Wind Technologies Market ReportPV)

            Solar $1.81 (Greentech Media 2nd Qtr 2014 Executive Summary)

            CCNG $1.09 (Open EI DOE Database Median Overnight Cost)

            Nuclear $6.94 (Vogtle current cost estimate $15.5 billion for 2,234 MW)

            While the installed cost of CCNG is a bit lower than onshore wind the difference is quickly wiped out by fuel costs. Solar is not far from being cheaper than CCNG (fuel costs included).

            It will probably take us more than 20 years to get fossil fuels off our grids. But we should be able to make some significant inroads over the next decade. If we can shut down the majority of coal plants and push NG into a fill-in role for wind and solar then we will be in decent shape to get almost all the carbon off our grids by 2050.

  • Looking at it a different way, Amazon might consider the other costs associated with dirty energy such as health impact, global warming and water use.

    Amazon is more than welcome to respond here. I sent them the link to the article. They replied to my email so they acknowledged receipt of it.

    Renewables save money over time. If they want to be more profitable, investing in renewables would save them money. Right now wind is cheaper than all dirty energy sources. Solar is cheaper than all others except natural gas, which could be cheaper in some cases, but not in all cases. Here’s an article with the data to support this claim.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Looking at it a different way, Amazon may have to decide whether it’s in the best interest of their bottom line to use dirty energy and chase away customers or to clean up their act.

  • Larry

    My next product review will have an “Amazon Go Green” message attached. This article is enough to make me shop elsewhere.

  • David, good article. Thank you for the information. I have just sent this message to Amazon:
    “As an Internet shopper, I expect the companies that I use to
    invest in clean energy. To keep me as a customer, Amazon needs to make major
    investments in clean energy and give a date (by press release or press
    conference) which you will be powered by 100% renewables.

    Perhaps other readers may consider sending their own version of this message.

    • Mary

      I just sent the exact same email to Amazon. Thanks for the share.

  • Naptown man

    is this reporter serious? Talk about some crazy extrapolation. Those numbers on the generation mix just refer to the amount of generating capacity sitting in the state, which is very different than the actual dispatch. This writer is stacking hypothetical upon hypothetical based on the fact that Amazon’s facility will be in Ohio and it has not announced any renewable generation to go along with it. And as far as I am aware, neither the author nor Greenpeace has any authority or expertise in computing how much electricity the company will use and at what cost.

  • timbuck93

    Is there any data on how much clean energy is used by “Box” (I put it in quotes because it’s a common word, and it’s hard to find info on the web).

    Just switched (in the process of copying all data) from Dropbox to Box in hopes that Box uses more renewable energy. Having a tough time finding that data.

  • timbuck93

    Appending my reviews with the subject whatever my feelings are on the product and (amazon go green)!

    I think EVERYONE HERE should do the same, and please tell your friends and family to do the same!

  • Vensonata

    Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and Amazon, so the story was probably tactful in its omission of Amazon as a non green internet player.

  • JamesWimberley

    Name and shame. Good stuff. Amazon is slightly less vulnerable than Facebook was to social pressure in that it’s not active in social networks. The way in is through the customer reviews that it needs for the products it sells. Each review should end: “Amazon, go green!” or something similar. Unfortunately it has an effective monopoly in many areas.

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