Greenpeace, Renewable Energy, and Data Centers

Greenpeace has focused on many issues of great import over the years. I like whales, don’t like shark finning, and it’s hard to be a huge fan of testing nuclear weapons on South Pacific islands. Much good work has been done and continues to be done. Over the past three to five years, Greenpeace has focused a portion of its resources on data center power consumption. It’s an important area so should get some focus. In truth some of this focus on the datacenter (server side) is misplaced. It’s actually mostly the “other side” (consumer devices) where most of the power is going. Each device draws very little but, in aggregate around the world, that power draw far exceeds that of data centers. Nonetheless, data center power consumption is of interest for both economic and environmental reasons and it makes sense to focus on improving it. Frequent readers know I spend a lot of my time on renewable energy, data center efficiency, and the application of renewable energy to data center applications. It’s both an interesting and important topic as well as being a key point of competition across the large operators.

If I’m excited about renewable energy, green power, and the environment and am deeply invested in learning and innovating in this area, why isn’t the release of a Greenpeace report on the topic exciting? It’s partly the report format and partly the content. I’ll look at each, but let’s start with what I would like to see as top focus areas for this work.  If I was to do a report on renewable power applications in the data center, my focus would be, in order of importance:

  1. Resource Utilization: This is by far the biggest lever in the industry where the carbon cost to produce servers, storage and networking equipment and the carbon impact to power it all is largely wasted. Common server utilization rates average between 10 and 20% across the industry. Turned around, that’s 80% to 90% wastage and there is no topic more important to address around data center environmental impact than utilization. The industry could easily deliver improvements in the 2x to 4x range, and this is where I focus a large part of my day job. The greenest power is that which is not consumed and yet resource utilization is not one of the four main focus areas of the report.
  2. Energy Efficiency: I have this as the number two largest lever to reduce the environmental impact of data centers. This is another area where huge gains are possible – factors of two have been hit over the last decade and this is another area where I spend a considerable amount of time. Efficiency is important because all power consumption, regardless of the source, has an impact on the environment. So our first commitment, as an industry and as consumers, has to be to only consume that which we need and to always be looking for ways to get the job done by consuming less. Technically, Energy Efficiency and Mitigation is part of the four main topic areas in the Greenpeace report, but the assessment looks pretty distant from the facts.  If you get a chance, read through the results on this category and see if they match your take on where data center energy efficiency innovation is under way and which companies are driving the biggest environmental gains.
  3. Go where the problems are: My approach to all the engineering topics I work on is to start with a cost or resource consumption model and use that understanding of where the problem is to drive what I do. In this case, that would be understanding where IT power is going and target the areas of largest consumption or most grievous waste. This approach can yield pretty good results and it is the technique I’ve used for more than a decade. In the Greenpeace report they focus on data center power consumption exclusively which is neither the biggest consumer of IT power nor is it where the bulk of the coal is going. That’s actually fine and, in fact, that’s where I chose to focus as well because that’s where I have the most influence at this point. Where the report authors again seem to lose their way is to report only on the world’s largest operators. These operators represent considerably less than 5% of the overall consumption and are actually among the most efficient in the world with estimates showing these datacenters are operating nearly 2x more efficient than the industry average.  The results from 2011 European Data Center Summit go back 4 years but this data has the large operators at 0.28% of the world’s IT power budget.  What that means is the operators covered by the report represent far less than 5% of the problem and are also the most innovative and efficient operators out there. I understand there is an appeal to cover the brands that people most recognize and it’s easier than spending time on a large number of relatively small players, but it does leave the bulk of the problem completely unaddressed. For example, when the first version of the Greenpeace report was released a few years back (How Dirty is Your Data), it was highly critical of Facebook and yet, at the time, they were estimated to have only 100k servers and were clearly one of the most energy efficient operators in the industry. While I was blogging some of the Facebook energy efficiency innovations, it was a mystery to why they were being held up in the Greenpeace report as one of the worst environmental offenders. It just doesn’t follow from the facts. Any approach that doesn’t start with where the majority of the IT power is going isn’t going to be effective at addressing the problem.
  4. Renewable Energy commitment: This one is well covered in the Greenpeace report and I agree with the focus.
  5. Leveraged solutions: This is my final focus area and what I’m after here is making a difference that has the maximum leverage. It’s one of the reasons I chose to work at AWS. Small improvements can have very large impact when fully deployed at very high scale. The Greenpeace report does make an effort to use leverage in that they ask the companies included in the report to publicly advocate renewable energy. I would rather see technical solutions than advocacy but there is certainly some leverage in advocacy since large technology companies absolutely do have broad influence both inside their respective industries and beyond. What’s missing is the largest form of leverage that I currently know of in the industry: cloud computing.  Cloud computing is an antidote for much of the problem Greenpeace is targeting and yet this is not part of the assessment criteria.

Let’s look at the last issue in a bit more detail since it is not properly covered in the report yet features prominently on my top level list of how to green the world’s data centers. The most obvious cloud computing contribution is on the #1 problem above: server utilization. All companies have to provision hardware resources to their peak usage but only consume the average. This inefficiency is characterized by the peak-to-average ratio. The smaller the peak-to-average ratio, the better it is for the environment, the higher the resource utilization, and the lower the overall costs. This is good for the environment and good for the involved companies economically. When you combine a large number of statistically unrelated resource consumers, the peak-to-average ratio falls dramatically and fast. For example, tax preparation systems unsurprisingly have a real usage spike at tax time, retail is most busy just prior to Christmas, and there is little that can be done to change either. All businesses operate on some cycle and as these mostly non-correlated cycles are combined in a cloud deployment, the peak-to-average ratio falls fast.  The same workloads can be supported at a far lower environmental impact.

These cloud computing gains on utilization are easy to understand and fairly obvious but other gains are potentially even more interesting. In the discussion above, we noted that the big operators actually represent less than 5% of the total IT power consumption.  They actually can’t make enough of an influence on the outcome by themselves and so we need a broader program. How to get to the majority not included in this group?  This is a difficult and somewhat vexing problem – it’s hard to cost effectively change the hundreds of thousands of small data center deployments spread all over the world. Making things worse, these small deployments can be very inefficient, often they are built using old data center designs, some are really just closets in office buildings, and most of the companies that own them don’t have budget to spend on innovative data center ideas, resources to test new solutions, or the ability to  modernizing these low-scale deployments.

The best way to address these small deployments that make up the bulk of the problem is to move them to cloud computing. Suddenly the utilization goes up, they are immediately running on very current, high-efficiency technology, it frees up office space in their facility, and they no longer need to overdrive office cooling systems not designed to cool data centers efficiency to cool servers. It’s all upside, it’s addressing the majority of the problem, and yet it’s not featured in the report.

We talked about the format of the report and why my top environmental focus areas are so different from those adopted by Greenpeace. My top areas are: 1) resource utilization, 2) energy efficiency, 3) go where the problems are, 4) renewable energy commitment, and 5) leveraged solutions. The Greenpeace top items are 1) energy transparency, 2) renewable energy commitment & siting policy, 3) energy efficiency & mitigation and 4) renewable energy deployment & advocacy. These four areas selected by Greenpeace seem to miss the mark and they appear to be very difficult to objectively measure. My biggest concern is that great scores can be achieved in the Greenpeace report while doing a poor job on taking care of the environment and, worse, the opposite can happen as well. Companies can be rated poorly while doing great things environmentally. These four focus areas just don’t look like the most effective places to focus if really trying to green the data center industry.

As well as addressing the format of the report, I promised to also look at the content. This one is a short topic but still a very important one. The Greenpeace report is based upon some combination of Greenpeace estimates and vendor self-assessment.  Where I know the data through other sources and can independently assess it, there are serious problems in the data Greenpeace is presenting. Greenpeace is aware of many of these inaccuracies but chooses to continue to publish using them. Using data that is known to be incorrect is somewhere between misleading and irresponsible. And, more important, it’s not necessary — approaches look both easier to execute upon and far more effective at lower environmental impact. I argue above that a different set of focus items will deliver more environmental good and deliver it faster.

I’m not excited by the Greenpeace report because, each year, it represents a lost opportunity to have broad impact on IT power consumption and increase the renewable component of this consumption. Each year is a new opportunity to explain the entire problem to the industry, show where the power is going, and advocate the solutions that will yield the broadest impact. Instead we get to read a faulty assessment of the work being done by less than 5% of the industry.


21 comments on “Greenpeace, Renewable Energy, and Data Centers
  1. Bryony Collins says:

    Hi James, when was the article above first published please? I’m a journalist and would like to quote from it. Thanks, Bryony

  2. Shravan says:

    Do you have some recent references about the poor server utilisations ?

    • Increased use of virtualization will have improved the number somewhat but industry server resource utilization averages will remain very low. Few customers measure it and even fewer want to talk about it.

  3. Dick Sonn says:

    Your article for someone focused on the line about Greenpeace and renewable energy is very refreshing to say the least. As you don’t turn a blind eye to the facts that are out there like so many. I am all for a healthier planet! But like you said in the response earlier to the plasma generator. There is not currently a renewable source that can touch our energy demand. Efficiency and total supply are huge factors as well as generation close to home. What are your thoughts on the subsidizing of so called green power that doesn’t meet the needs of the company’s using it? Where they are being subsidized to put in solar or wind tearing up large plots of land to not even be close to their demand. I admit every little bit helps but at sometime, you need to stop and think 100 acres of forest means more than a solar field. I would like to see more of the subsidy put towards research and less towards building units that are often obsolete by today’s research standard and, or not truly feasible, cost to production.

    • Perhaps I’m a bit more optimistic on the opportunities offered by current generation green power technologies. I’m particularly positive on wind generation as an alternative that can leave forest and farmland intact while generating reliable power.

      Like you, I’m a bit skeptical that power subsidies are the best way to spur innovation and encourage the deployment of green power generation technologies. By far the best answer is to create green power generation technologies more cost effective than coal. Were that possible, natural economic factors would force change. However, that perfect world is not hear today and all green power sources have an additive cost over burning coal or petroleum products. In a way, it’s not particularly surprising that large natural stores of energy that don’t need manufacture — just sufficient investment to remove them from the ground, would be more cost effective than green options. What’s missing is that the cost of coal doesn’t reflect the actual “cost” — it’s a non-renewable resources but this isn’t a big factor since there is such enormous quantities of coal available. What’s a bigger factor, is coal burning in vast quantities can cause acid rain, and a wide variety of respiratory problems in humans and presumably other animals. A coal power plant only pays for the cost of getting coal out of the ground and delivered but not for the impact on the ecosystem. If power source cost included the cost of the commodity, the infrastructure to produce power from it but also the cost of mitagating the impact of using the technology, then the price would more closely reflect the true cost to society and green technologies, even without subsides, would compare more favorably.

      Any external manipulation of a financial market runs the risk of unintended consequences. We see this in a big way with power subsidies. There have been many solar plants installed in parts of the world with unfavorable sun conditions, there have been times when solar plants have led to clear cutting of trees, and I’ve seen wind plants built but idle even with favorable winds because a nearby coal plant was meeting customer demand at that point in the day. I prefer a system where power sources are taxed in line with their impact on the environment and the actual costs associated with their use. I would like to see coal with taxes that reflect the health care costs and the costs to mitigate lake acidification in the downwind areas. With taxation consistent with true impact, green power technologies could compete on a more equal footing.

  4. Kevin Donovan says:

    With regard to your point about server utilization rates, there are some companies that are creating products that bring utilization up to 80%-90%. In fact, I am currently writing a white paper for one of them. You don’t mind if I quote your article?

  5. Kyle says:


    What are your opinions on new technologies entering the renewable energy space to provide on-site and economically feasible energy? Company’s such as Brilliant Light Power promote that they can produce energy at a tenth of a cent/kWh. This would save data centers on their most expensive expenditure and give them peace of mind knowing that their power source is not subject to going down with the grid, and will no longer have to host expensive diesel gen sets for power outages. I know BLP is a highly debated technology but what are your thoughts on this kind of infinite/inexpensive energy? Do you think something like it that has the ability to remove grid infrastructure while producing renewable energy at a fraction of fossil fuel costs?

    • Assuming you are serious when asking me what my thoughts are on power that is infinite and inexpensive and only a fraction of fossil fuel costs? You won’t be surprised to hear I would like it greatly — very greatly. Sadly, no such power source has been found. Renewable power at less than the cost of coal is the holy grail and it would be a very happy day for the planet and all power consumers if we were to find such a breakthrough. I’ve not seen any credible solutions on the horizon that appear anywhere close to production volumes.

      • Kyle says:


        Thanks for your response and yes I am being serious. As you noted it would be incredible for a renewable source to come about that is cheaper than coal and that is why I brought up Brilliant Light Power. Their recent press release notes that they have received validation of their plasma power source that creates a solar powered generator, which can run continuously, without grid infrastructure, and at that tenth of a cent/kWh price. The press release also stated that they have received validation of the power output of their plasma systems from industry professionals (Dr. Joseph Renick- former Chief Scientist at Applied Research Associates, Bucknell Professor Dr. Peter Mark Jansson, Dr. K.V. Ramanujachary, Rowan University Meritorious Professor of Chemistry and Material Science). It says they are supposed to be in the commercialization process as early as the beginning of next year. Have you ever seen this technology? I am very curious to know if you think it has any credibility. Thanks again!

        • There have been interesting research results from academia and industry for decades. Many researchers are optimistic but, as I said before,I’ve not seen any credible solutions on the horizon that appear anywhere close to production volumes.

          This is not an advertising site so, please, no more Bright Power advertisements.

  6. Joan says:

    The big question now is, did you got this – as an “knowledgeable and resourceful insider” – communicated to the blokes over at Greenpeace in a civilized and productive(*) way?

    *) an example how not to do this has been brought to us by the high-standards-poster Mark:

    • Joan asked if this was communicated to Greenpeace in a civilized and productive way. Yes, of course. I may have bored them with some of the conversations and I’m sure the length of the odd note might have been excessive by some measures but, for sure, we have communicated back and forth clearly and professionally. Nothhing here would catch the Greenpeace team by surprise — they don’t agree with everything I said above but they have certainly seen it previously.

  7. Arne says:

    efficiency is only a part of environmental impact, a 20% efficient system that takes all of its power from renewable sources has a lower power environmental impact than a 50% efficient system that takes all of its power from fossil fuels…

    • Arne, I agree that it’s not only about efficiency. However, since all renewable energy sources have environmental impact, conservation will always be a big part of reducing environmental impact. My 5 areas of focus are: 1) resource utilization, 2) energy efficiency, 3) go where the problems are, 4) renewable energy commitment, and 5) leveraged solutions. First reduce consumption overall since there is no greener energy than that which is not consumed. the best approach to greening IT is a broad based approach that focused on both conservation and on renewable sources.

  8. mark says:

    When you ask the random person “what company is responsible for the most environmental impact from data centers?” they answer quickly and without thinking much the first think that comes to mind. Which is the companies that the press sometimes reports on such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Most of Greenpiece members are averagely intelligent which is extremely low measured by our standards. Do not expect a lot. Then notice that half of the population is even less intelligent than average.

    • Mark, your observation on the the cruel statistics of the average reminds me of the US National Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion where the host Garrison Keillor signs off each show by saying “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

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