“The cloud” is a term that refers to the computing infrastructure that collectively comprises the internet. It is a network of data warehouses that store and process information. The cloud allows any internet user to access files stored there from any compatible device. With more than 3.2 billion internet users, the network of servers and data centers that make up the cloud is vast and rapidly growing.
Amazon Inc.’s cloud computing branch, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the single largest provider of cloud services, it is growing quickly, and its data centers consume massive amounts of energy. Amazon provides limited reporting on its energy use, lacks transparency compared with other large companies in the tech industry. After years of pressure from Green America and others, Amazon has taken steps committing to renewable energy sources.
Amazon reached 50% renewable energy use in 2018 and the company states it has a “long term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage”. Unfortunately, this goal has no deadline. With more than 3 billion Internet users worldwide, demand for cloud computing is growing rapidly, and Amazon has a critical role to play. Now is the time for AWS to build a greener, cleaner cloud—powered by renewable energy. And we need to keep up the pressure to make sure they do so.
We are calling on AWS to commit to:
1) accelerate its goal to increasing the share of renewable energy powering data centers to 100% by 2020, and cease the construction of new data centers that rely on coal-fired power;
2) Submit complete and accurate data to the Carbon Disclosure Project;
3) Issue an annual sustainability report following Global Reporting Initiative Guidelines.
Researchers at Greenpeace estimate that if the cloud were a country it would be one of the biggest consumers of electricity on the planet—sixth in fact, after Russia, and before Germany. In 2012, analysts at the New York Times estimated that cloud computing consumed 30 billion watts of power per year, or as much as can be produced by 30 nuclear power plants. In the US alone, data centers use energy equivalent to the amount used to power 6.4 million average American homes in a year.
AWS owns and operates a crucial piece of the digital economy, which uses a tenth of the world’s electricity each year. Simply put, it takes a lot of power to keep the cloud running.
When you turn on your laptop and connect to the Internet, you may think you’re only using electricity to power your computer. But information on the Internet is stored physically on servers, which require electricity. These servers run on a mix of power sources, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables. The breakdown depends on the company that owns the servers as well as the geographic location of the servers. Servers run 24/7 so that users can access their data at all times.
We know that as a result of burning fossil fuels to power human activities, the average global temperature is increasing. Until we pressure AWS to reach 100% renewable energy, each time you open a site hosted by AWS, you’re promoting the use of coal-fired power.
Tech- and investment-advisory firm Digital Power Group released a report estimating that the total energy input of streaming a full-length movie from the cloud is more than what it would have taken to manufacture and ship a the same movie as a DVD. This highlights the importance of pushing companies like AWS to transition to renewables as quickly as possible.
A list of AWS clients, including businesses, governments, federal agencies and universities can be found here.
Despite its size and financial resources, AWS lags behind every other major company that operates data centers on a large scale. Unlike Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, Amazon has disclosed very little information about its energy use and its impacts on the climate, and it’s easy to understand why. Google and Apple have longstanding commitments to running on 100% renewables and have provided updates on their progress to the public for years. Amazon now has a goal of moving to 100% renewables but no stated timeline for doing so.
Greenpeace rates AWS as a C in their 2017 ClickClean report. While this is an improvement over previous years, AWS still seriously lacks in many areas, most notably in the transparency category, where it received an F. We must continue to push AWS to report accurate environmental impact data and to release comprehensive yearly reports to public. Without this transparency there is no way to hold them accountable for their energy use.
Amazon has begun generating renewable energy with the construction of Its own wind and solar farms. By 2018, 50% of the energy powering AWS servers came from renewable sources.
While these are welcome developments, in the coal-heavy regions such as Virginia, where more than half of US internet traffic passes through, Amazon purchases electricity that is up to 97% coal-powered. They have plans to bring several solar farms online in the state of Virginia to help address this issue, but it’s not enough. A 2019 Greenpeace report found that Amazon’s data centers in Virginia are powered by only 12% renewable energy.
There are a number of companies that provide data services powered with renewable energy. You can find a few here.
The short answer is that it does. Before cloud technology, businesses and organizations that wanted to store their data needed to do it themselves, usually at their own location. Cloud computing allows anyone to access their data remotely and securely, without the need for having their own servers.
The real issue at hand is how we choose to move forward. As technology and the cloud become an ever-larger presence in our lives, the amount of energy needed to sustain them also increases. AWS stands out among its competitors in that it has only just begun to address its continued use of dirty energy. While the company is making progress, it still has a long way to go.
You can find more research on the impacts of cloud computing and Amazon’s contributions here:
Natural Resources Defense Council