Yesterday I heard a story on NPR about cloud computing. I’m a big fan of keeping documents on the cloud. I use a lot of different computers and I like to be able to access my data from any of them. I use Evernote, Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Flickr and iCloud and that’s not including things like email, social media, and, yes, WordPress. I knew about the security concerns of these services, but the NPR story was the first time that I heard anything about the environmental impact of cloud computing.
If you don’t have time to listen to the four-minute story, the gist is that powering one cloud storage facility uses enough energy to power 57,000 homes. They use millions of computer servers that all need to be constantly cooled by air conditioning. Facebook actually has a data center near the Arctic Circle so that they can naturally cool their servers. Apple, Box and Google run their clouds on renewable energies.
Greenpeace is one of the environmental organizations with initiatives to green the cloud. Their Clean Our Cloud program spotlights companies using green technologies and lobbies for changes in those that don’t (they’re looking at you Microsoft, Amazon, and, sadly, Pinterest).
After hearing the story, cloud computing seems pretty wasteful, but compared to the alternative it actually cuts energy consumption by up to 87%. This makes sense when you take into consideration that, like buying in bulk, it’s often easier to streamline energy savings in a fewer large-scale operation rather than in numerous inefficient personal setups.
Many of the studies I found were commissioned by providers of cloud services, so they can only be trusted so far. They’re trying to acquire cloud customers so these studies intend to negate the impact of data center energy consumption. I wouldn’t put my money on the exact percentages they report, but the general principles are sound. I think as wasteful as cloud services seem now, they will become more efficient and greener fairly quickly. With just financial incentives, companies will be motivated to make more efficient data centers as time passes. Even if environmental improvements are just a side effect of their cost-saving measures, the benefit still stands. An article in Forbes also points out the impact that e-commerce in general has had on the environment, citing the rise of telecommuting, online purchasing and the decrease in brick and mortar stores and paper use as benefits of the move to the online economy.
I think that the move toward cloud-based services is a positive direction, but the implications of that still need to be studied and improved. As individuals, there isn’t much we can do to improve the efficiency of data centers. I would suggest using companies that take advantage of renewable resources and demonstrate responsible environmental practices. You can see a list of the good and bad companies as well as guides for calling them out on social media at Greenpeace’s Click Clean website.