Green America is national nonprofit organization working to create a green economy through economic solutions to environmental and social justice problems. A major part of creating a truly green economy is shifting America’s electricity generation to 100% clean power from wind and solar. In identifying sectors which lag in clean energy use, the telecommunications industry stands out with its use of over 30 million MWH. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done to move this industry to be a champion of using clean energy.
The telecom sector uses enormous amounts of energy each year. The four largest companies – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile – collectively use more than 30 million MWH of electric power each year. AT&T and Verizon, the two leading US companies in the industry, have a combined electricity usage that could power 2.6 million homes for a year. Yet, as of 2017, both companies were using less than 2% of clean energy to power their massive servers, and this number is mostly represented by natural gas.
Sprint is using less than 1% renewable energy. T-Mobile has moved into a leadership position on renewable energy commitments through its recent announcement of committing to 100% renewable energy by 2021. After Green America announced its “Hang Up on Fossil Fuels” campaign, tens of thousands of consumers reached out to AT&T and Verizon urging them to use clean energy. In February 2018, following T-Mobile’s announcement regarding 100% renewable energy sourcing, AT&T announced that it will purchase 520 MW of power from two wind farms in Oklahoma and Texas, which represents approximately 20% of its energy used. Still, overall the sector is using enough electricity to power all the households in New York City, and most of it is from dirty energy sources.
A large portion of this energy (90%) powers wireless access networks, towers and other infrastructure allowing cell phone users to access data and connect nationwide.
Data centers make up most of the remainder of the energy used and are a rapidly growing driver of climate emissions worldwide. Data centers are central locations of computing and networking equipment, and have existed since computers became a part of our lives. The telecommunications industry relies heavily on these centers and access networks running 24/7 so we can google funny cat GIFs at any time of night or more importantly, stay connected to our friends and families. That connectivity comes at a high environmental cost since data centers and networks serving the telecom industry are powered on fossil fuels. Telecoms must begin using renewables, since they use more electricity than tech companies like Google or Apple.
A review of the four major telecoms in the US conducted by Green America found the following:
- Renewables: Only one major telecom company, T-Mobile, has made a commitment to move to 100% renewable energy. Shortly thereafter, AT&T announced the purchase of 520 MWh of wind energy2 , which we estimate will take its overall consumption of clean energy to 15-20% of total energy used. Verizon and Sprint are both utilizing less than 2% renewable energy. Even with its stated commitments to double its renewable energy commitments over the next decade, Verizon will still be using less than 4% clean energy. Verizon has not made any notable commitments to clean energy or greenhouse gas reductions and is the laggard in the telecommunication industry on this issue.
- Intensity and Usage: AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have all lowered their energy intensity (increased efficiency) over the past decade. AT&T and Verizon have kept their energy use and emissions constant. Sprint has significantly reduced its energy usage. T-Mobile is the only company to see a significant increase in energy usage over the past decade. However, in comparing the four companies regarding their energy intensity in relation to revenues or customers, AT&T and Verizon use far more energy per revenue dollar or per customer than Sprint or T-Mobile.
- Overall Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions: AT&T and Verizon have not set goals for reducing overall emissions. Sprint made a commitment to reduce overall emissions by 20% by 2017, and more than doubled that target with a reduction of 47%. With its recent commitment to 100% renewable energy, T-Mobile projects a 90% reduction in overall GHG emissions. In this report we track both Scope 1 emissions (from sources that are owned or controlled by the organization) and Scope 2 emissions (from the consumption of purchased energy). In the telecom sector, Scope 2 emissions are much greater per company than Scope 1 since most of the energy used is purchased electricity, which is why the rapid transition to renewables is so important.
- Renewable Energy is a sound business decision: The availability of wind and solar energy in the United States is growing dramatically and the cost is going down. Wind power is increasingly the least expensive form of energy generation available in several areas of the country. In announcing its commitment to reaching 100% renewable power by 2021, T-Mobile highlighted the fact that the company expected to save approximately $100 million in the next 15 years.
GREEN AMERICA’S WIRELESS SCORECARD
Based on publicly available data and information provided directly to Green America by companies, we graded each of the companies on core metrics related to efficiency, clean energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
The telecommunications industry can make great strides in reducing fossil fuel use, and it will take the major companies stepping up and committing to achievable clean energy goals in a responsible timeline. To reduce our climate emissions at the speed and scale necessary to address the climate crisis, all companies should commit to shift to 100% renewable energy within the next decade and reduce their GHG emissions. T-Mobile has made the strongest commitment to renewable energy to date, with a goal of 100% energy from wind by 2021, and by joining RE100, a global initiative uniting companies that are all committed to 100% renewable energy.
AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint should act similarly to T-Mobile and adopt a goal of 100% clean energy before 2025, along with overall carbon emission reduction goals and deadlines for each step. Clean energy means solar and wind power, with a complete phase out of coal, nuclear and natural gas. Clean energy options are increasing every year, in large part to satisfy the demands set by major corporations, states, municipalities, and other institutional purchasers. If major IT companies like Apple and Google can achieve 100% clean energy, telecom companies can, too.