Thursday, 21 January 2016

How tech companies are propelling the environmental movement, and why it's time to do more

Due to their influence, funds, and will to act, tech companies have emerged as key players in the environmental movement. Here's what we think they need to do to take it to the next level.

Loudoun County, Virginia, is home to more than 4.3 million square feet of data centers and claims that 70% of internet traffic flows through it every single day. It hosts the servers of many major tech companies, and because of that, it has enormous influence on the world — even though hardly anyone knows its name.

But the county — its data centers, its people, its economy, its land — is still in the hands of the coal industry.

Clean energy has shown renewed signs of progress in 2014, and it has energized environmentalists, technologists, social entrepreneurs, and educators alike. This year, the tech industry in particular has received a lot of praise for its work toward renewable energy.

Photos of solar panels on the roofs of giant corporate buildings, vast wind farms sprawling across the desert, and massive hydropower plants along the coasts are widely circulated. Startups in Silicon Valley and around the world have focused efforts on solving problems facing the energy sector such as battery storage, energy transmission, and big data analytics. Companies have become more transparent about their environmental practices and scaled up their efforts in corporate social responsibility.

But the truth of the matter is, large scale improvement — like significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and the slowing of climate change — doesn't happen when tech companies narrowly focus on their own operations and build their facilities in already environmentally progressive states like California or Nevada.

It happens when they get involved with states like Virginia.

Dominion Energy is the utility provider for Virginia, and coal and natural gas accounted for 98% of its electricity in 2013. Only 2% was from renewables. The state of Virginia is a leading coal producer; about 4.5% of US coal production east of the Mississippi River in 2012 came from the state. And Norfolk, Virginia, America's largest coal export facility, processed more than 38% of US coal exports that year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

So if it's true that the majority of internet traffic flows through the servers in Loudoun County, and the majority of tech companies still rely on coal, that means that the majority of the internet continues to be powered by finite fossil fuels.

According to Greenpeace's most recent report, the cloud consumes as much energy as what would be the world's sixth largest country. After Greenpeace began calling out the world's largest tech companies a few years ago, Apple, Google, Facebook, and others vowed to power their data centers with 100% renewable energy. Apple and Facebook have built new data centers that run on 100% renewable energy, and Google is more than a third of the way to that goal.

But Amazon, the other tech giant, remained silent until several weeks ago. The company finally announced in a low-key statement on its website that Amazon Web Services (AWS) — its cloud computing division — has a "long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure footprint."

AWS servers host Netflix, Pinterest, Spotify, Vine, Airbnb, and many other websites. According to David Pomerantz, media officer for Greenpeace, Amazon operates at least 10 data centers in its "US-East" region, and its largest is in Northern Virginia.

"We don't know exactly how much electricity Amazon uses there, since the company still hasn't published that data, but it's safe to say that it's a lot. We and other analysts have estimated that over half of Amazon's servers are in this region," he said.

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