This article has been updated to include comment provided by Google.
Global non-governmental environmental organization Greenpeace and internet giant Amazon are trading blows over a report published earlier this week by Greenpeace, which claims that Amazon Web Services is only meeting 12% of its renewable energy commitment in Virginia’s “data center alley.”
Greenpeace published a report on Wednesday entitled Clicking Clean Virginia – The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley which claims that “the expansion of Amazon and other cloud computing giants in Virginia’s “Data Center Alley” is further fueling climate change with new demand for dirty energy.” Greenpeace looked at the activity in what has become known as “Data Center Alley.” Located in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington DC, Data Center Alley is home to the world’s highest concentration of data centers and claims 70% of the world’s internet traffic passes through its borders. Specifically, the focus of Greenpeace’s ire was Amazon Web Services (AWS) — the cloud computing arm of online retail giant Amazon — which, according to the Greenpeace, “appears to have abandoned its commitment to renewable energy, with evidence of a dramatic expansion in Virginia over the past two years without any additional supply of renewable energy.”
“Despite Amazon’s public commitment to renewable energy, the world’s largest cloud computing company is hoping no one will notice that it’s still powering its corner of the internet with dirty energy,” said Greenpeace USA Senior Corporate Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim. “Unless Amazon and other cloud giants in Virginia change course, our growing use of the internet could lead to more pipelines, more pollution and more problems for our climate.”
The report claims that, even as the number of data centers have increased dramatically in Data Center Alley over the last couple of years, there has not been a concurrent increase in renewable energy supply, due at least in part to recalcitrance on the part of Dominion Energy, “Virginia’s largest electricity provider and the primary electric utility for Data Center Alley” which “has strongly resisted any meaningful transition to renewable sources of electricity, currently representing only 4 percent of its generation mix, with plans to increase to only slightly over 10 percent by 2030.”
I reached out to Dominion Energy for comment on its role in Data Center Alley. Keith Windle, vice president of Business Development for Dominion Energy said in response, “A vast number of the world’s data centers reside in our service area, and it is our responsibility to not only provide them with reliable energy but to help them meet their renewable energy goals. Our strategy for the future is on balancing our portfolio to meet our customers’ future energy needs in the most reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable manner possible.”
Dominion Energy also highlighted both a correction to Greenpeace’s reporting — saying that “Dominion Energy actually owns and operates 260 MW (not 132 MW) of solar for Amazon across six different projects around Virginia” — but also outlined several ways in which it is looking to help its data center customers “meet their renewable energy goals.” Specifically, Dominion Energy reports that it has invested an ongoing $1 billion to grow its solar fleet, which is now the fourth largest among utility-owned companies in the United States, and it has implemented a goal of having 3 GW of new solar and wind energy in operation or under development by 2022. Dominion Energy also currently boasts 30 solar facilities with a total capacity of 824 MW currently under development or operational across Virginia. The company has also surpassed its goal of reducing its carbon intensity by 50% and has committed to reducing it by 60% by 2030.
Report author Elizabeth Jardim, commenting on Dominion Energy’s own response, further highlights the difference between publicity and reality. According to Jardim, Dominion’s claim of an 824 MW nameplate capacity is misleading when adjusted for capacity factor — which, for solar in Virginia, is 23% — after which Dominion Energy’s projects only deliver approximately 190 MW to the grid, and will deliver 690 MW in 2022. Dominion Energy’s correction is similarly incorrect, according to Jardim, who said that “We accounted for the six solar projects (and one wind project) for AWS in Dominion’s territory, adjusting for delivered capacity to the grid. (Detailed in AWS’s table in the report appendix). The 260 MW of solar farms deliver just 60 MW to the grid. The additional RE comes from the wind farm for AWS in Dominion North Carolina territory. Our methodology section clearly explains these adjustments.”
In the end, Jardim thinks “Dominion’s plans for renewable generation are not nearly ambitious enough to meet the demands of data center companies in its territory with 100% renewable goals, let alone other customers with that objective. Dominion is holding back the whole state from reducing carbon emissions in a global effort to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C in the next 12 years, as top scientists have warned is necessary to avoid devastating climate change.”
“The most direct way for Dominion to meet any stated goals it has to reduce carbon intensity would be to cancel its plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” Jardim added, “which is expected to generate nearly 70 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, or right [sic] 20 coal power plants, and scale of renewable generation far more urgently than it has planned.”
According to Greenpeace, Amazon Web Services has increased its operations in Virginia by 59% but has not added any renewable energy supply to meet this increase in demand. As such, AWS only secures 12% of its power supply from renewable energy sources. The report also claims that AWS has added 600 MW of additional data center capacity in Virginia but no new renewable energy in the last two years. Greenpeace’s estimates place Amazon Web Services’ total power demand across its 55 Virginia data centers (operating or under construction) at 1.7 GW.
“Even before Amazon announced Northern Virginia would be its HQ2, the company was already a major electricity customer in the state,” Jardim said. “Without intervention from data center operators in Virginia like Amazon, the internet will continue to drive carbon emissions with every click, swipe, and share. It’s time for Jeff Bezos to think beyond profit and accept responsibility for Amazon’s impact on the global climate.”
The report looked at 13 companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, and concluded that Facebook has achieved 37% renewable energy supply in Virginia, Microsoft 34%, and Google only 4%.
AWS Hits Back
Unsurprisingly, Amazon Web Services hit back at the report in a statement given to Windpower Engineering & Development within hours of the report’s release, claiming that “Greenpeace has chosen to report inaccurate data about the energy consumption and renewable mix of AWS’s infrastructure and did not perform proper due-diligence by fact-checking with AWS before publishing.
“Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’s current and projected energy usage. Additionally, the report does not properly highlight that AWS has been a major investor in solar projects across the Commonwealth of Virginia and played a leading role in making it easier for us and other companies to bring more renewable energy to Virginia through our Market-Based Rate with Dominion Virginia Power.”
I reached out to Amazon Web Services, which declined to comment on the record regarding any specifics of the report which I raised, and was not able to comment off the record at time of publication.
I also reached out to Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for comment on Greenpeace’s relevant numbers. As of writing, only Facebook chose to reply, saying that it “cannot confirm the 37% number” Greenpeace attributed to it, and that “Some of the facilities listed are not yet operational. We are committed to supporting all of our facilities, including those in Virginia, with 100% renewable energy.”
Update: Google also replied, after the time of publishing, and provided this comment: “The Clicking Clean Virginia Report inaccurately represents Google’s electricity load in Virginia. While we do have facilities under construction, they are not online or drawing power. As part of our commitment to purchase 100% renewable energy for our operations — a goal we met for the first time in 2017 – we expect to source renewable energy for our facilities in Virginia after they come online.”
In response to Amazon Web Services’ statement, Greenpeace USA Senior Corporate Campaigner Elizabeth Jardim appears to have opened the door for admitting its figures were not 100% reliable. “Amazon Web Services and Amazon have consistently refused to report their energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions leaving the public in the dark about their carbon footprint,” she said in a statement sent out to journalists. “Unlike other leading internet companies, who have steadily improved their transparency and environmental reporting since Greenpeace began our evaluations of internet companies in 2010, both AWS and Amazon have unfortunately steadfastly refused to make public even the most basic data on the energy and environmental footprint of its operations, in stark contrast to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.”
Greenpeace USA media officer Cassady Craighill confirmed for me that they “absolutely stand behind” their analysis but that they “did want to acknowledge AWS’s affirmation that it is committed to the goal of powering its cloud with 100% renewables,” reasserting, however, that “it is difficult to track the company’s progress with its record of mum reporting and lack of transparency.”
Supply & Demand
While both AWS and its parent have indeed signed a number of renewable energy deals, you can’t begin to evaluate their significance collectively or individually without the underlying context of their energy demand,” Jardim continued, which strikes to the very heart of the matter. Amazon and other tech companies are making repeated and significant claims that they are investing in and building new renewable energy projects all over the world.
Google, Apple, and Microsoft regularly make headlines with one new project or another. In the last few months, Google announced plans to increase its renewable energy share in Denmark and Taiwan, while Microsoft announced plans to serve its operations in Pennsylvania with 90 MW of wind energy from the Big Level wind farm.
But it is no surprise that demand continues to increase, as more and more companies jump on board the cloud computing game and more and more services appear needing more and more data. It’s no wonder, then, that supply might be outstripping demand — especially when you throw in a recalcitrant energy supplier like Dominion Energy.
In Greenpeace’s report, the methodology is laid out, and in situations where companies refused to make public their energy data, there was a lot of guesswork involved. However, the lack of data is in and of itself a worrying trend and suggests a desire to keep things hidden. Amazon Web Services — and the other companies highlighted in “Clicking Clean Virginia” — might have room to maneuver and claim Greenpeace are incorrect, but one wonders — until we see all the data — just how off-the-mark Greenpeace is.
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