For the estimated 2.5 billion people around the world who are connected to the internet, it is impossible to imagine life without it. The internet has rewoven the fabric of our daily lives – how we communicate with each other, work and entertain ourselves – and become a foundation of the global economy.
Seemingly on a daily basis, new businesses that use the internet as their foundation are disrupting and often replacing long-standing business models and industries. From music and video to communications and mail, more and more of our “offline” world is moving online. We can expect that trend to continue and accelerate as the global online population reaches 50% of the world’s projected population, moving from 2.3 billion in 2012 to an expected 3.6 billion people by 2017.
While the online world appears to grow at the expense of some traditional business models in the offline world, it is rapidly creating increased demand for at least one offline product: electricity. The rapid growth of the cloud and our use of the internet have produced a collective electricity demand that would currently rank in the top six if compared alongside countries; that electricity demand is expected to increase by 60% or more by 2020 as the online population and our reliance on the internet steadily increase.
While shifting businesses to an online model can create significant gains in energy efficiency, the energy appetite of the internet continues to outstrip those gains thanks to its dramatic growth. Critically, the internet’s growing energy footprint has thus far been mostly concentrated in places where energy is the dirtiest.
But there is good news to report: since our last report, How Clean is Your Cloud? (April 2012),3 leading data center operators have taken key steps toward building a green internet, particularly those companies that have committed to build a 100% renewably powered platform. These commitments are having a profound impact in the real world, shifting investment from legacy coal, gas and nuclear power plants to renewable energy technologies, and disrupting the status quo among major electric utilities.
In US states like North Carolina, Nevada and Iowa, these companies’ commitments to clean energy are resulting in large amounts of wind and solar power displacing coal, gas and nuclear plants or preventing them from being built, to the tangible benefit of the global climate and communities living in those states.
The environmental rationale for technology companies to act has been clear for many years, as a rapid shift to renewable energy is necessary to stem the worst impacts of climate change. Now, the business case is becoming more compelling as well: costs for renewable energy continue to drop, prices for fossil fuel-based electricity are rising, and leading companies are perceiving those price cues. They are also heeding customers who increasingly value sustainability.
Unfortunately, despite the leadership and innovation demonstrated by green internet pioneers, other companies lag far behind, with little sense of urgency, choosing to paper over their growing dirty energy footprints with status quo solutions such as renewable energy credits and carbon offsets while rapidly expanding their infrastructure. Other internet companies have refused to pay even lip service to sustainability, and are simply buying dirty energy straight from the grid. Those companies, most notably Amazon Web Services, are choosing how to power their infrastructure based solely on lowest electricity prices, without consideration to the impact their growing electricity footprints have on human health or the environment.
Greenpeace is the leading independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.