This is why the internet really needs green energy

The physical realities of data are far from popular conceptions of the internet as a vapourless “cloud.” Online services, especially for streaming video content, consume vast amounts of power. Greenpeace has in fact noted that if the internet were a country, its electricity usage would rank sixth globally. We once built steel mills near energy sources, but now that’s where we construct data centres — the factories of the digital economy.

The virtual cloud starts with coal, which provides much-needed electricity as well as the greenhouse gases which greatly contribute to global warming. The consequences of warming world are already apparent: rising sea levels, melting polar ice, extreme weather and drought have already begun to take a toll on human and animal populations. If business continues as usual and we remain tied to dirty power sources, the sustainability of our digital ecosystems is in peril as well.

Demand for internet-based services is quickly increasing, particularly for streaming online video, and more people than ever have access to the myriad of benefits the World Wide Web enables. But supporting all this digital activity takes a lot of power — most of which is still provided by polluting fossil fuels.

Now is the time to contend with the fact that we have a finite amount of these resources, and removing more of them from the ground will have catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth. According to Vectren Energy, the process of generating electricity for various needs (including internet services) accounts for about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions globally. Going forward, only renewable and sustainable sources of energy will be able to help us keep up with the projected amount of electricity needed to satisfy the internet’s growing appetite while capping global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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Large internet companies have the capacity to direct consumers and the global marketplace towards a clean, sustainable energy future that will mitigate and adapt to climate change. In their “Click Clean” report released in May, Greenpeace listed which tech giants are “leading the way or falling behind in the race to build a greener online.” This year, Google, Apple, Facebook and others seemed to finally learn that sourcing renewable energy for data centers is feasible way signify their broader commitment to climate action, as well as a way to tighten down overall energy consumption.

Apple has committed to powering the iCloud with “100% renewable energy” by building the massive solar farms at its North Carolina data center, buying wind energy for its Oregon and California data centers, and working with the Nevada utility to power its future data center with solar and geothermal energy. EcoWatch also reported that Apple is working with its suppliers in China to eventually produce 2.2 GW of solar, wind and hydroelectric power to run the manufacturing operations.

Facebook has delivered significant wind power investment in Iowa and continues to find ways to bring renewable energy to power its North Carolina and Oregon data centers. Meanwhile Google just announced “the largest, and most diverse, purchase of renewable energy ever made by a non-utility company” matching Apple to employ a strong combination of procurement, investment, and policy advocacy even where it has no data center operations.

Read more: Apple turns manufacturing process green with WWF China partnership

According to GreenBiz, HP is embarking on a massive new project to purchase 112 Megawatts of wind energy over the next 12 years to power its internal IT operations worldwide. This switch will reduce by 340 000 tons HP’s emissions of carbon containing gases, equivalent to removing 65 000 passenger cars from the road.

Internet companies are, however, hampered in their clean efforts where access to renewables is restricted by dirty energy utility monopolies. Although state policymakers offer significant tax incentives to locating data centers in their states, laws that prohibit purchasing clean, renewable energy from non-monopoly utilities must be revised through legislative advocacy. Both North Carolina and Virginia will have opportunities to review their laws and policies this year. Based on their responsibility to future generations, there is hope that the public and private sectors will be able to unite on clean power projects and legislation going forward.

There are clear signs of a transformative shift in both energy sourcing and consumption, led in no small part by the creative minds leading today’s successful internet companies. Representing a vibrant new age of thinking about the world, the climate and other issues that matter to people in the generations ahead, an internet powered by 100% renewable energy is closer now than ever before.



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