Maybe we should be more green? Kerry Gammill art

Tech uses 12% of the World’s Electricity

This month, Greenpeace (GP) released an eye-opening report on electricity use by the tech sector. I keynoted on this subject at Hashiconf EU & we’ve previously written about improving data centre efficiency.

Below is my synopsis of the report. I’ve pulled out key bits, given opinions on their conclusions and listed take-away actions for me. Enjoy!

Tech (DCs, networking, devices, manufacturing) will use ~12% of the world’s electricity in 2017 and that share is growing fast. That’s bad but also an opportunity — with our level of demand we could incentivize energy companies to build and supply more renewable power.

However, we would need to

  • demand renewable power from our IT providers (particularly AWS)
  • increase our efficiency ([aec] this is my comment, GP are clearly just assuming this will happen, but I think they’re failing to grok IT’s historic trends — we tend to swap efficiency for developer productivity).

Alternatively, we could all just host on Google who are miles ahead on the renewable cloud (Google are targeting 100% renewable in 2017, AWS are targeting 50%).

A big issue in the report is Virginia (home of AWS’ US East) which is a rather dirty region apparently. We think there are 2 factors at play here. US East is well placed to access the submarine cables and peering facilities on the east coast. At AWS’ scale this geo factor is important so it’s an attractive location for DCs. However, energy is dirty in VA due to political factors including lots of coal. Forcing VA to clean up its act may be more practical than moving US East and if AWS can achieve that, we’d be very happy.

According to Greenpeace, tech (devices, data centres, networking and manufacturing) will use around 12% of world electricity in 2017. Data centres will be ~1/5 of this.

That’s a lot! And GP estimates our use to grow by ~7% annually for the next 15 years. That’s twice as fast as the global average so our share of electricity use will rise.

[aec] Personally, I suspect that growth rate is underestimated, I’ve seen bigger estimates once IoT takes off.

The good news is most companies are getting better at being cleaner. Apple, Google and Facebook get A ratings from Greenpeace, Microsoft gets a B, Amazon, IBM and HP get C’s. Asian companies do really badly right now because of poor access to clean power from their utilities. However, our usage and growth is so large that we need to do a lot more.

The importance of where DCs are physically located is strongly emphasised in the report— AWS gets a kicking because they’re expanding in Virginia, which has poor availability of clean power.

[aec] Hang on — doesn’t this put control in our hands as AWS users? Couldn’t we just put more of our instances in regions with cleaner energy sources? That would encourage DC growth in areas with access to cleaner electricity and give states motivation to invest. AWS hide all this data, but we could take an educated guess. We know Virginia is bad. I’ll do a separate post on this because it’s interesting. The GP report doesn’t suggest we do this, but I suspect it wasn’t actually aimed at us keyboard-wielding plebs, it was aimed at AWS.

The biggest single user of electricity is streamed video. GP estimate that by 2020 80% of internet traffic will be streamed video (!!!) The key advice is to watch it on YouTube, who get an A for greeness. Amazon Prime gets a C and Netflix gets a D.

[aec] I find it quite interesting that YouTube do so well. I believe Google use orchestration very effectively to make YouTube efficient. I talked about this kind of stuff at QCon last year.

Anyway, apparently we should be listening to iTunes (A), communicating via WhatsApp or iMessage (A), searching with Google (A) and hanging out on Facebook (A) or Instagram (A).

[aec] Twitter, btw, gets an F!!! Disaster! OK, new New Year’s resolution, cut back on tweeting.

Greenpeace point out that, with our high usage and growth, IT could play a great role in directing the energy industry towards renewables and we already are — 3.4GW of renewable deals ([aec] that’s 2–3 million homes-worth) were signed in the U.S. in 2015, over two-thirds of this power was for deals with IT corporations (mostly Google).

[aec] This seems like a nice, positive way to put it! We’re a pretty agile sector with good margins and full of intelligent folk, we could certainly lead the energy industry towards renewables by establishing ourselves as a big customer.

GP comment that although the cloud is generally way more resource-efficient than on-prem ([aec] AWS is ~4x as efficient) that can lull us into a false sense of security — we may get locked-in to cloud DCs in really dirty-energy regions like Virginia or most of Asia :-(

Greenpeace also point out that energy efficiency improvements alone can be a double-edged sword. If they enable companies to offer free or cut-price or unlimited services, consumers use them more. That’s OK if the services are renewably-powered but fairly disastrous if they’re not. According to Greenpeace, we need to demand clean energy for our DCs, irrespective of efficiency. I can see the logic in that.

The report then provides a nice set of questions to ask and pros and cons to consider for any company going renewably-powered and also a list of green-washing practises that companies use to look more green than they are.

Greenpeace are very pro-transparency on energy use and targets. The folk with A’s tend to be the most transparent ([aec] causation or correlation?). AWS get criticism for being particularly secretive.

The overall conclusion of the report is that tech is a huge and growing user of electricity. This is an opportunity. If we demand renewable electricity then with our spend we can encourage energy companies to supply more.

However, it’s also a big responsibility. If we don’t go renewable then we’ll be one of the largest consumers of dirty fossil-fuel energy. We’ve become much more transparent and focused in the past 5 years, particularly Google, Facebook and Apple. However, there’s a long way to go and Greenpeace consider a 100% renewable target for the tech sector to be the correct outcome. We cannot afford to just put our feet up.

[aec] Here’s where I say yes, AND. I think we must be even more ambitious — we need 100% renewables AND much higher efficiency, because tech is going to grow. I suspect Greenpeace are betting that improved efficiency will just happen. I hope they’re right, but historically they’re not. Historically we’ve consistently sacrificed efficiency to developer productivity, so if we don’t find a way to provide both we’re sunk. The cloud managed services are good at this, but as GP points out AWS seem locked-in (ironically) to very dirty energy in US East.

  • Shouldn’t we move our AWS instances to more eco-friendly regions, i.e. not Virginia (US East) or Asia? For Microbadger I think we’re mostly in US East at the moment :-( Who knew that was so bad! We know that AWS are very demand driven though. If we want change we need to establish user demand for it.
  • Generally question where DCs are located and what’s powering them (don’t locate in places with insufficient renewable power).
  • Consider a greener cloud (GCE?)

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Anne Currie

SciFi author interested in tech, engineering, science, art, SF, economics, psychology, startups. Chaotic evil.