We open our laptops and hook up to WiFi, click on a browser app on our smartphone, or turn on a tablet, a world of infinite possibilities is at our fingertips. Most often, we don't even consider how the process occurs. The internet's power is simply there, always available. But because we are so accustomed to continuous access, we're running up the meter on electricity.
By 2017, half the world's population will be online. As the demand increases, so does electricity usage. According to a report by Greenpeace published earlier this year, worldwide electricity demand is supposed to increase by at least 60% by 2020.
The nonprofit environmental organization, which is well-known for its efforts to tackle climate change, has been on the tails of tech giants for years, pushing hard for a cleaner web. Its most recent campaign, called #clickclean, is an effort to build a cleaner, greener internet.
"An incredible virtual online world is powered by, essentially, burning rocks — the same way they did in the 1800s and earlier," said David Pomerantz, media officer for Greenpeace. "I think companies recognize that [image] is really dangerous for them."
Greenpeace is focused on Amazon Web Services for its latest campaign. The company received a 15% — a failing grade — on Greenpeace's most recent clean energy index, which was gathered from public data. AWS hosts a significant portion of the internet, including Netflix, which accounts for 31% of internet traffic at peak times.
Amazon disputed the numbers, but has not yet released its own electricity data. The company did not respond for comment for this article. Social media sites such as Twitter, who scored almost as low as Amazon, as well as Pinterest and LinkedIn were also called out in the report for using fossil fuels to power their data centers.
"It's hard to solve a problem when you won't even recognize it and quantify it," Pomerantz said. "This doesn't have to be a big PR problem for them... it could be an opportunity to shore up their brand and their business. This could be a good move for them, but so far we haven't seen evidence publicly... hopefully it is [coming]."
Greenpeace isn't asking Amazon — or any other company — to make the move overnight. A 100% renewable energy commitment will take time, and the organization isn't pushing for specific deadlines with this campaign.
"We're asking companies that move very, very fast to engage with an ecosystem with energy utilities and policy makers and regulators that move at a fairly glacial pace," Pomerantz said.
Comedian Reggie Watts is relaying the #clickclean message through a series of funny videos, aimed at getting the public to convince tech companies to commit to renewable energy. Using humor, the organization is attempting to target a wider audience. They don't want to beat people over the head with the message, and it's definitely less aggressive than many of Greenpeace's past campaigns — ones like destroying GMO wheat and radically protesting oil and nuclear power companies.
"A big part of the logic behind the campaign is understanding the leverage these companies have," Pomerantz said. "They're causing huge changes to the electricity grid. They could be positive changes if they decide that, or they could be very negative changes."
The path to a clean web
Greenpeace started focusing on the IT sector in 2006, though they were looking at it through a different lens. The first campaign was a quest for greener electronics — the organization wanted to remove hazardous, toxic chemicals like flame retardants and PVC plastics from gadgets. It was the optimum time for the campaign, too, as smartphones and tablets were just starting to make headlines.
Their first Guide to Greener Electronics report was released that year (and has since been updated many times). Big tech companies and small startups are making strides to use conflict-free minerals and more environmentally-friendly materials.
"The industry has a long way to go just within that world, even though a lot have cleaned up products, some haven't," Pomerantz said. "There's still a ton to do in the supply chain and manufacturing, even if [the materials] don't end up in the final phones and computers."
In 2010, the Greenpeace team saw another arising problem in the IT industry: data centers. The data centers, internet, and associated ecosystem are pretty large contributors to carbon emissions. According to Pomerantz, the energy usage of the IT sector as a whole compares to global aviation. It's a "pretty significant amount of carbon pollution they're putting out there," he said.
A report by the Digital Power Group last year showed that the Information Communications Technology (ICT) ecosystem uses 1,500 terawatt hours of power each year. That's equivalent to the electric power of Germany and Japan combined. Total ICT usage is about 10% of the world's electricity generation. Some huge data centers being built in the US can use as much as 80,000 to 100,000 homes, Pomerantz added.
When their push for a cleaner internet started in 2010, Greenpeace focused heavily on Facebook, asking them to "unfriend coal." They hadn't yet gone public, so the company was just starting to build out their data centers. One was in North Carolina, where renewable energy makes up less than 2% of electricity generation, and the other was in Oregon, in an area where 60% of the power utility was generated by coal. Facebook's short-term goal is to be 25% renewably powered by 2015.
In 2012, Greenpeace turned its attention toward Apple — scolding them for using dirty energy to power the cloud. Apple used 55% coal at the time. Two years later, Greenpeace was praising the company as the most aggressive and innovative in Silicon Valley. In its most recent report, Apple scored 100% on Greenpeace's green index.
Google, who also made a commitment to 100% renewable energy, is currently at about 34% (though, as Pomerantz noted, its footprint is also much larger than the other companies).
To date, at least six companies have committed to powering their data centers with 100% renewable energy:
Pomerantz said there are probably others they haven't mentioned, but they know these six are doing it with integrity and the organization is tracking their progress. And big behemoths aren't the only ones making progress. For example, Rackspace, which has a smaller footprint, has some of its own data center infrastructure, but it also rents space from a facility that uses coal power. The company is working with providers to start using renewables.
"It's important to note, no matter what size of company — most of these big IT companies they have some means at their disposal to move in the right direction."
Greenpeace is banking on the fiercely competitive nature of tech companies, startup culture, and industry leaders to use their money and time wisely to commit to a clean energy future. After all, they do have valuable, influential brands to uphold and protect, Pomerantz said.
"They're disruptors and innovators. This is baked into what they're good at," he added.
- Apple praised, Amazon shamed in Greenpeace report on clean energy (CNET)
- 10 ways technology is fighting climate change
- Bill Gates: 'We need energy miracles' yet US invests paltry 2% of R&D budget in energy
- 10 facts about the smart grid: IT's role in unlocking clean energy
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.