The recent, rapid growth of digital technologies has produced a vast new appetite for electrical power.  Internet data centers, which function as the “factories” of the digital economy, are largely responsible for this demand. Today, the Internet’s electricity demand would rank sixth in the world if it were to be considered its own country. Moreover, according to a new report by Greenpeace, Internet electricity demand will grow by half a trillion kWH a year by 2017 – much of it from streaming videos and on-demand music. Factoring in these trends alongside the ever-present warning of climate change, Internet companies must immediately begin to move away from dirty energy sources and monopoly utilities.

To have Internet infrastructure powered by “clean” energy signifies a commitment to a future based on sustainable energy from scalable sources such as solar and wind rather than the finite supplies of fossil fuels that still sit beneath the Earth’s crust. Xoom Energy has reported that the energy sector contributes about 31 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States – but the construction of new data centers means a fresh opportunity to rely on renewables from the start. The door is open to large technology companies to rapidly develop the innovative tech needed to break our dependency on oil. Time will tell who chooses to walk through it.

According to EcoWatch, Apple is now working with its Chinese suppliers to produce an eventual 2.2 GW of power for manufacturing from wind, solar and hydroelectric sources. One of Apple’s manufacturing partner, Foxconn is pledging to supply 400 MW of solar power by 2018, as much energy as its Zhengzhou factory uses to make iPhones. 40 MW of completed solar projects in Sichuan province now produce more electricity than all of Apple’s offices and retail stores in China. Apple’s Chinese operations would otherwise use electricity from coal burning plants that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributing to toxic air pollution locally, and polar ice melting, raised sea levels, and extreme weather globally.

Apple claims to use “100 percent renewable energy” to power their cloud, with large solar farms deployed in North Carolina, California, Nevada, and Arizona. Likewise, they have purchased wind power for their California and Oregon data centers as well as a micro-hydroelectric facility near their Oregon data center, and are working with the Nevada utility to power their future data center with geothermal and solar energy.

Google has kept up with Apple’s drive into building or buying renewable energy where state energy policies have permitted and has embarked on a more complicated quilt of investment, procurement, and policy advocacy elsewhere, even where it has no data centers.

Amazon’s subsidiary Amazon Web Services (AWS) has committed to using 100 percent renewable energy to power its operations and announced plans to buy over 100 MW of wind energy. However, Greenpeace rates Amazon as utterly lacking in transparency, insofar as its “green” ambitions, and reports that AWS has applied to rapidly expand its data center capacity in Virginia by 200 MW, a state where the Dominion electric utility uses only 2 percent renewable energy to power the grid.

Large Internet companies may declare their intentions of using 100 percent renewable energy, but the reality of their data center electrical needs is more complicated, and clean energy for Internet services and products is not uniformly within easy reach. Large data centers are located in technology friendly locations like North and South Carolina, Georgia, Taiwan, and Singapore that also are home to dirty energy monopoly utilities. Internet companies will have to engage in government policy debates to change this.

One possibility is to tie the establishment of new data centers to the availability of renewable clean energy sources. US state legislatures are aware of the conflict, and may be willing to re-examine those outdated monopolistic energy policies.

Internet companies are, by in large, agile and future-oriented in their approach to electricity and the future of power, displaying a concern for the ecological issues that matter to coming generations. But there is a lot of work ahead for the next wave of tech employees, who will be tasked with the challenge of innovation under serious carbon constraint. Internet companies would do well to push for legislative reform, and utilize their impact to in turn positively change the Earth’s environmental destiny.

by Brandon Engel