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Unlike Other Tech Giants, Amazon Doubles Down on Coal

“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:

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.

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Written By

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.


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