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Most of us consider the internet to be a virtual world in which we can learn, communicate, store data and perform a host of other useful activities without actually having much of an effect on the physical world. It’s important to note, however, that the energy required to run the internet must come from actual, brick-and-mortar electricity suppliers.
As the popularity of computing devices increases, particularly in the mobile and home automation spaces, we can expect there to be more Internet traffic and therefore a corresponding increase the the amount of energy expended. While the ink’s still wet on December’s Paris Agreement on climate change, it’s crucial that the tech industry do its part to begin promoting the shift towards a clean-energy economy.
Rather than just letting market forces determine their energy consumption mix, many of the top technology firms are taking the bull by the horns and proactively committing to a more sustainable future.
Apple and Microsoft claim to already use 100% renewable energy. Amazon, Google and Facebook have also committed to eventually getting all of their energy from renewable sources, but they’re not quite there yet.
According to a report from the US Environmental Protection Agency on the top 100 companies in its Green Power Partnership, Microsoft and Apple have reached the level of using 100% green power along with chip maker Intel. The corresponding figure for Google is 36%, and Amazon and Facebook don’t even appear on the list. Other notable firms on the list include networking equipment giant Cisco at 97% and computer manufacturer Dell at 54%.
It’s difficult to determine what these figures actually mean though.
In many cases, companies can boost their renewable energy totals by purchasing renewable energy certificates. These certificates aim to financially represent the environmental benefits of renewable energy production. So it’s not clear what fraction of their green energy percentage comes from the actual use of solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable tech and what fraction is accounted for by savvy maneuvers on the market for these certificates. The claims of Apple and Amazon in particular have come under fire for being difficult to assess at face value.
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It’s important to remember that even if these numbers are slightly overstated, there has still been a large impact by leading tech organizations in the renewable energy field. When these mammoth enterprises build data centers and other infrastructure in areas that currently lack them, they can and often do negotiate with local authorities and electricity suppliers to make regulations more friendly to clean energy.
On a national level, Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft have banded together to support the US government’s Clean Power Plan against a lawsuit filed by several states. This plan was enacted in 2015 and allows the EPA to override state-level pollution regulations in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions by 30%. Implementation of the Clean Power Plan has been temporarily blocked as the case works its way through the court system.
According to Atco Electric, 9,675-trillion BTUs of renewable energy were produced in the United States in 2015, up from 6,106-trillion BTUs in 2000. This is a more than a 50% increase in 15 years, and if we wish to continue to make significant progress on this front, the participation of power-hungry technology organizations will be critical.
What on earth is a BTU? A British thermal unit is an imperial measurement of energy. To get complicated for a moment, one BTU is equal to the amount of work required to raise one pound of water by one degree Farenheit. It’s more or less the same as 1055 joules, or 235 calories.
Companies that operate in the online space have already transformed the world in just a few short decades by extending Internet connectivity to billions. In the transition towards a more sustainable future, they’ll have a valuable role to play as Internet access spreads even to poorer, developing nations. As long as they continue to innovate, there’s no reason why these enterprises can’t make a significant contribution to the development and deployment of green energy solutions.