The Dark Side of Our Bright Digital Spaces: 21st Century Wizardry Relies on Dirty Energy of the Past

New technology like iPhones, laptops, and iPads wouldn't be possible without the coal-fired power plants whose design has changed little since the 19th century.

The internet through which you are reading these words can seem the very pinnacle of bright and shiny modernity. The web is clean. It’s glowing. It has an etherealness that feels apart from the brutishness of the world.

But don’t be fooled. These words are likely zipping to you courtesy of one the filthiest and most primitive forms of electricity generation: coal. The 21st century wizardry of iPhones, laptops, and iPads wouldn’t be possible without the coal-fired power plants whose design has changed little since the 19th century. Our futuristic present relies on the technologies of the past.

I was reminded of that ever-startling fact this week when Greenpeace released a report concluding that, if taken together, global information and communication technologies would represent the fifth largest electricity user in the world — behind the US, Japan, China, and Russia. The most prominent technology and communication companies — Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google — all rely on some coal-fired electricity to run the data centers that make their products work, according to the Greenpeace report.

Today, the global information and communication sector is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as the airline industry. Thanks to the explosion in the popularity of digital gadgets, that percentage is expected to double in the next 10 years.

A major reason for this is the surge in what’s called “cloud computing.” Take Apple’s fresh-off-the-assembly-line iPad, which is just hitting stores. When users watch movies, check their Facebook pages, fetch emails, or search Google, most of the content isn’t stored on the device but instead is delivered in real-time from the internet, which relies, in turn, on giant data centers. Together, these data centers have become known as “the cloud” — an info-sphere that is both everywhere and, for that same reason, no place exactly.

In the US — the cutting edge of cloud computing — the information sector’s demands for energy are far outpacing global IT usage, even after taking into account all of the new computer lovers in India and China. According to Greenpeace, at current growth rates the data centers and telecommunication networks that undergird the cloud will triple their electricity consumption by 2020 and will then represent more than half of today’s electricity usage.

You might want to read that last sentence again: In just 10 years, internet technologies could be eating up more than 50 percent of the electricity we now use in the United States.

“What we are trying to do is get the public to understand that these are magical products, but they don’t appear magically,” Daniel Kessler, a Greenpeace press officer, told me. “They are powered by a massive amount of energy, a lot of which comes from coal.”

Kessler, for the record, has an iPhone. He also says that he, like many Greenpeace staffers, is on Facebook, which he loves.

That’s the same Facebook that takes some heat in the Greenpeace report for having recently constructed a datacenter (its first) in Oregon built by PacificCorp, a utility that gets the majority of its energy from coal.

In a nice twist, Greenpeace is using Facebook’s own platform to, well, campaign against Facebook. Kessler says in the last six weeks some 350,000 people have joined Facebook groups pressuring the social networking giant and other information technology companies to use their market clout to push for renewable energy policies.

“Facebook is building their very first datacenter,” Kessler says. “Are they going to do it in a sustainable way, or merely a slightly greener way? The datacenter that they built is energy efficient — but it still runs on coal.”

Neither Apple nor Facebook nor Google responded to my requests to comment on the Greenpeace report. (Those companies also didn’t go on the record for a Reuters story about cloud computing’s carbon footprint.) Their reluctance to publicly address the issue reveals a defensiveness that, I think, is pretty savvy. These high-tech behemoths recognize that their reliance on dirty energy is out-of-sync with their gleaming brand images — and they don’t want to talk about it.

Of course, as any software developer can tell you, problems often contain their own solutions. Apple, Google, et. al. have the opportunity to use the issue to burnish their green credentials and be in the vanguard of companies demanding progressive government policies on energy. If they’re smart, these companies could set themselves up as a kind of counterweight to Big Oil and Big Coal. They could lead a corporate movement that understands that 21st century US economic growth and success will rely on clean energy.

Sooner or later, the information industry will have to realize that it can’t deliver to us a bright future if it is on the wrong side of history.


Thanks for posting my latest tech curmudgeon post. Appreciate it.

Say, have an update, if it’s not too much trouble.

Finally got responses from Facebook and Google, though not Apple.

Somewhere on the post could you please put for the record:

Editor's Note: Update as of April 5, 2010:
After this report was posted, both Facebook and Google emailed statements about their energy policies Facebook’s statement reads, in part:

“It is simply untrue to say that we chose coal as a source of power.  The suggestions of ‘choosing coal’ ignores the fact that there is no such thing as a coal-powered data center.  Similarly, there is no such thing as a hydroelectric-powered data center. Every data center plugs into the grid offered by their utility or power provider. The electrons powering that data center are produced by the various sources (e.g. hydro, natural gas, coal, geothermal, nuclear, etc.) the provider uses in proportions similar to the mix of sources used.  That is, if 25% of the providers energy comes from natural gas, it’s a good guess that 25% of the electrons powering the facility come from that source. Even when a facility is in close proximity to an individual source of energy, such a dam or coal plant, there is no guarantee that the electrons from that source are flowing to the facility at any particular time.” 

Google responded with a statement reading:

“We see this as an issue that goes beyond data centers, since Google, along with everyone else, relies on an electricity portfolio that is depends on coal and other carbon-intensive sources. We ALL need cleaner, affordable options. That’s why we also have ourRE<C initiative, which aims to create utility-scale renewable electricity that is cheaper than coal through engineering projects, investments and policy work.”

Apple still has not responded.





Jason Mark is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of "Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power." He is researching a book about the future of food.
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