Greenpeace claims that Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and others are contributing to global warming by using coal to power data centres for their cloud-based services. The charges are dramatic - but are they on target?

A new Greenpeace report, titled 'Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change', warns that the data centres of cloud computing giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others are in large part powered by coal, which contributes to global warming. Greenpeace charges that the computing giants aren't doing enough to place data centres where they can use alternative sources of energy, or to push for policy changes. You can download the report here.

Previous to the release of the report, Greenpeace criticised Facebook for purchasing electricity for its first custom-built data centre from a utility that uses more coal on average than the rest of the US. The centre, in Prineville, Oregon, will buy power from Pacific Power. Greenpeace set up a Facebook group asking that Facebook stop using coal power.

The BBC says that Facebook admits that Pacific Power uses more coal on average than other places in the US. The BBC also reports that Facebook's servers will use an air-cooling, rather than air conditioning, which will cut electric use.

The Greenpeace report charges that Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google already have data centres that rely on coal, and that they are building new data centres that will also rely on coal. The group says that companies should instead build data centres in areas where they can get electricity from renewable resources. It singled out Apple for building a data centre in North Carolina, where coal supplies about 60% of the state's electricity.

"The last thing we need is for more cloud infrastructure to be built in places where it increases demand for dirty coal-fired power," the report concludes.

The report praised Yahoo for building a data centre near Buffalo, New York, where it will be able to get hydroelectric power.

What's the truth about the charges against Facebook and others? The heart of Greenpeace's charges are that the companies data centres should be built near sources of renewable energy, and that the companies should push for policy changes that would ensure greener production of electricity. Greenpeace also charges that although the companies use electricity-cutting techniques in their data centres, they do that only to save money, and don't take more drastic action that would reduce the use of coal power.

Greenpeace has it partially right. As a whole, the technology industry has not done nearly enough to push for reforms that would push for the use of renewable energy and reduce the use of coal. And the industry also isn't doing enough to locate data centres near sources of renewable energy.

But the companies are also doing good as well. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have located data centres near large sources of renewable energy, for example. Google purchases carbon offsets to make up for coal use. And all companies are doing an increasingly good job of making sure their data centres are very energy-efficient. The fact that they're doing it to help their bottom line doesn't matter - it does help reduce global warming.

Still, Greenpeace is right that the industry needs to locate data centres near sources of renewable power whenever possible, and that it should push for changes to cut our reliance on coal.

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Computerworld US