Tech companies in Silicon Valley have a better record of using renewable energy sources than do those in Seattle, according to a report from environmentalist group Greenpeace.
Updated 2:11 p.m. To include comment from Amazon, Microsoft.
Earlier: Seattle may be the de facto headquarters of the cloud-computing world because of the presence of Amazon.com and Microsoft. But Silicon Valley has a better record of plugging the data centers that power the cloud into renewable energy sources, Greenpeace said in a report released on Tuesday.
The environmentalist group gave Amazon particularly low marks — including an “F” grade for transparency — in its scorecard of the clean energy use of 17 major companies that provide Web-based services. Microsoft received straight Cs. Those rankings were largely unchanged from a year earlier.
Apple was the only company Greenpeace scored to receive straight A’s in its four categories. Fellow San Francisco Bay Area companies Google and Facebook were close behind.
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“You see a really big gap between industry leaders like Apple and Google, and some of the companies that maybe have a good statement of intention but have a long way to go in terms of actually making good on their commitment,” said David Pomerantz, a senior climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace. “I’d put both Amazon and Microsoft into that second bucket.”
Greenpeace ranks the companies on on how the electricity powering each data center is generated, as well as energy issues advocacy and transparency of their process. Use of “clean” energy — solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal — are prioritized. Coal, natural gas, and nuclear use is penalized.
In cases where companies don’t detail their energy use or source, Greenpeace estimates are based on local utilities, industry standards, or public documents. The group started tracking the energy use of the infrastructure powering the internet in 2010, as more people and businesses began storing data and running programs on distant pooled servers, rather than nearby machines.
A spokeswoman for Amazon Web Services said in a statement that the report was “inaccurate and misguided,” incorrectly tallying how much energy the company’s data centers used and what portion of the electricity was generated by renewable sources.
“We’ve told Greenpeace it’s wrong, but they chose to publish it anyway,” the statement said. “We remain committed to providing our infrastructure technology platform in as environmentally friendly a fashion as possible.”
In an emailed statement, Microsoft chief environmental strategist Rob Bernard said he appreciated the attention the report brings to renewable energy and acknowledged that “there is more work to do.” Bernard also touted Microsoft’s current programs to shift toward renewable energy, adding “we remain committed to a clean energy future.”
Both Washington companies are making some progress, Pomerantz said.
Amazon in November announced plans to shift its energy use fully to renewable sources. In January, the company said it would help build a wind farm in Indiana.
Just as some financial analysts criticize Amazon for a lack of certain financial disclosures, Pomerantz said the company was “a black box” when it comes to its energy use. Amazon hasn’t laid out a roadmap for how it plans to transition to renewable fuels, Greenpeace says, and assertions that its German unit is carbon neutral lacked details as to how that was achieved.
Microsoft in 2012 made a commitment to offset its carbon use, and in the last two years has signed deals to buy renewable power to fuel data centers in Texas and Chicago. But the Redmond company, racing to close the gap with Amazon in the market for Web-accessed services, has been growing its energy footprint faster than it can turn it green.
The company also makes a practice of buying renewable energy credits from facilities that may be distant from the data centers Microsoft is seeking to offset. That’s less effective at shifting power generation toward renewable energy, Pomerantz said.
“That may make Microsoft’s PR happy, but they’re not cleaning up their energy footprint at all,” he said.
Both companies are hurt in Greenpeace’s ranking by new data centers in Northern Virginia, a region heavily dependent on the coal mined in nearby Appalachia. That isn’t an intractable problem, though, Pomerantz said.
“When Amazon and Microsoft want to do something, they figure out a way to get it done,” he said. “These are massive companies with incredible political and financial leverage.”