Notes on the Greenpeace Datacenter Report

Greenpeace's 2012 datacenter report came out. Some think it exposes the dark underbelly of on-line services, others think its another Mike Daisey-like hoax, designed to mislead the public.

Overall it appears to me that the data is accurate, the results are unremarkable, some of the analysis is overly critical, and at least one point is actually over-generous to specific companies. Below are my thoughts, and a closing question: why are these companies under this scrutiny?


Here are my specific thoughts on "How Clean is Your Cloud":

  1. The main finding of the document is that the cloud providers are primarily using the same electricity as everyone else to power their datacenters (OMG!). At some level you have to give credit to Greenpeace for getting mileage out of this unremarkable fact, or you have to blame the media and its other enablers (like me) for propagating it.

  2. The most important concept in the document is transparency. From a public point of view, large datacenters are major new users of a public resource, and need to be open about their impact. But cloud providers also have an opportunity to use transparency to their advantage, which I will discuss at the end of this note.

  3. Datacenters need reliable, baseline electricity. Today we only have three sources: fossil-fueled power generation plants, hydro (more on this below), and nuclear. Today's energy storage technologies are not good enough to make wind or solar even relevant to the discussion. And no one is building new power plants in the US, so I'm not sure how Greenpeace or anyone else can express dismay that datacenters are using the current power sources (I agree that the situation in developing countries is more dynamic, and there may be more room for progress).

  4. I differ with Greenpeace around hydro, as I don't give datacenters "eco credit" for using it. Hydro is, for all practical purposes, a fixed resource, and if a large corporation muscles its way into a long-term contract for it, its not like more gets created somewhere else. Imagine you live or run company that's located 20 miles from a hydroelectric dam, and you feel good about using its clean, reliable power. Then you find out that a datacenter is going to be 5 miles from the dam and has bought all of the power, so you will now have to get your electricity from a coal plant 200 miles away. At that point you would wonder how the datacenter is getting credit for what they're doing.

  5. I thought the article was right to highlight collaboration. These cloud operators know they are in the electricity business whether they want to be or not, and are increasingly being proactive in working with the rest of the power industry to improve their collective situation. In a sense, every company is in the electricity business, and should act accordingly.

The Missing Reports

With a 35 report analyzing an industry that uses 2% of the power, Greepeace must have another 1,750 pages of analysis looking at the other 98%, right? Of course not.

On the Greenpeace side, they are clearly grandstanding, picking out high profile consumer brands that they know will garner media attention, and who also have a history of responding to the media on their environmental impact.

But the cloud providers are enabling Greenpeace. Environmental activists all know that the IT industry is the easiest to pressure on eco issues, mostly because they are trying to do the right thing. But in addition to being responsive, the IT companies put themselves in this position by not being totally transparent. As long as they let Greenpeace be the reporter of the facts, then they can't feel bad about how Greenpeace spins the analysis.

The cloud providers need to break this bad cycle they're in, and the only way to do it is to report everything about their datacenters themselves.