Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Can they clean the cloud? Or, what having your favorite songs on demand everywhere has to do with coal

Greenpeace activists at the Apple Store in San Francisco April 24, 2012.
Greenpeace activists at the Apple Store in San Francisco April 24, 2012.
Jakub Mosur

I got pulled over by a cop last night and it freaked me out. I realized when he asked for my proof of insurance that it was on my desk at home. So I went to the cloud to find it: I keep backups of some documents in Evernote, and others in the Apple thing I think of as MobileMe. It's more convenient. That convenience wasn't deeply appreciated by the LAPD officer--I still got a ticket. Environmental groups aren't so fond of it either, at least, in its current incarnation. 

According to a new study from Greenpeace, our virtual warehousing of documents, pictures, music, and other stuff is driving a demand for energy, and that energy is coming from climate-changing, polluting sources.

Greenpeace's report describes where various computer and data-service companies have physical facilities. For each location, the report breaks out where the power comes from, and, by weighing each location according to its role in data management, comes up with total contributions to each company's energy mix for coal, nuclear and renewable sources.  

Today's spin is that Apple ranks worse than other companies. Greenpeace stuck decals onto windows at San Francisco Apple stores and re-routed Apple devices in the stores to its own website. Greenpeace argues that if you don't like climate change and air pollution connected to dirty power plants, you shouldn't like Apple either, because 55% of its data service power coming from coal.

"People around the world want to use iPhones and iPads with the knowledge that an iPad is coming from clean energy, not dirty power from coal power plants," says Greenpeace's Dave Pomerantz. "Apple has a lot of power to lead the sector in innovating. They have a history of thinking different and they should do that with their energy choices as well." 

But it's also true that the other consumer-based cloud computing services are only doing slightly better, even counting facilities that aren't fully on line yet.'s Virginia data centers are 46% coal powered. But its Oregon facilities are mostly nuclear powered, and those locations contribute heavily to Amazon's data service. So Greenpeace concludes that 34% of Amazon's cloud is coal-powered, while 14% of it comes from clean sources. Amazon's in Greenpeace's sights now too. 

Facebook is sending renewable energy to its cloud services from Sweden, San Jose and its Santa Clara locations, so even though coal drives its facilities in Virginia and North Carolina, clean energy accounts for almost as much of its cloud's energy mix as coal.

Greenpeace seems pretty pleased with how Facebook has responded to its call for cleaner energy. "That was a 20 month campaign," says Pomerantz. He says, at the time, his group targeted Facebook because "they were a company that was growing quickly, it was growing fast, and we recognized because of that platform we were able to make a difference."

Dell is credited with 56% clean energy for its data management, thanks to renewable contributions from its Washington site. Still, Dell's cloud computing is marketed mostly at the enterprise level, to corporations that may not often make decisions based on environmental campaigns. Greenpeace's Pomerantz says the point is that this is a global issue, and big companies are part of the bigger conversation. "We do want to change the entire IT sector and we think that would mean a lot for how we consume energy in this country," he says.

As for Google and Yahoo, they're "unequivocally good guys," Pomerantz says. Yahoo aims to build its cloud where renewable energy is available, like in upstate New York, where hydropower drives the data. Google is licensed to buy and sell clean energy, and has bought wind power in Oklahoma and Iowa under 20-year agreements to keep data mills turning. Maybe this, finally, is the argument for Google+: nearly 40% of its data service power comes from clean energy, and 29% of its energy is coal.