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Originally published Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 7:01 AM

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Amazon, Microsoft low on Greenpeace clean-energy 'cloud' index

Greenpeace's report looks at 14 big tech companies' cloud-computing data centers and estimates how much power they need, as well as what type of energy — "clean" or "dirty" — is used to supply that power.

Seattle Times technology reporter

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Greenpeace is releasing today its ratings on how clean or dirty tech companies' clouds are, and among those it dings are two local giants: Amazon.com and Microsoft.

"Cloud" refers to storing data and applications on remote servers and data centers, which users can access through the Internet. That's in contrast with the more traditional method of storage in a company's own servers or mainframes.

Greenpeace's report looks at 14 big tech companies' data centers and estimates how much power they need, as well as what type of energy — "clean" or "dirty" — is used to supply that power.

The two main sources of dirty energy Greenpeace listed are coal and nuclear.

Among the clean/renewable energy sources: solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal.

Based on those criteria, Yahoo, Dell, Google and Facebook rank highest in Greenpeace's "clean energy index."

Companies ranking the lowest: Salesforce.com, Oracle and IBM. Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are in the next-lowest group, according to Greenpeace's clean-energy index.

Growing cloud

The report comes at a time when more and more people are turning to the cloud to store everything from photos to video to music, and to provide instant on-the-go access from our mobile devices.

"Only in the last few years have we started using more energy in the cloud than we are on the devices we have," said Adrian Sampson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who specializes in energy-efficient computing.

Energy-conscious consumers should be aware that when they operate, say, a smartphone or a tablet, the battery is not the only energy they're using, Sampson said. "Especially for things like iPhones and iPads, which are extremely energy-efficient, and they're only able to be that efficient because they use so much energy in the cloud, in data centers," he said.

Greenpeace's report puts it this way: If the cloud were a country, its electricity demand would currently rank fifth in the world.

While many IT companies have made strides in energy efficiency, Greenpeace says that's only half the picture, with its report geared largely toward spurring companies to get their energy from clean sources.

Data challenge

Because many tech companies don't release much information about their data centers, Greenpeace used publicly available data as well as estimates it made itself. Those estimates are based on information such as size of a facility, and energy use for that size based on industry standards. According to Greenpeace, 34 percent of the electricity Amazon uses comes from coal-generated power and 30 percent from nuclear.

The environmental-watchdog group says Microsoft uses 39 percent coal power and 26 percent nuclear power.

Yahoo, in contrast, uses 20 percent coal power and 15 percent nuclear. Google uses 29 percent coal and 15 percent nuclear, according to Greenpeace.

An Amazon spokesman said Greenpeace's "data and assumptions about Amazon are inaccurate. Amazon Web Services believes that cloud computing is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional computing. Instead of each company having their own data center that serves just them, AWS makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of companies to consolidate their data-center use into a handful of data centers ... eliminating the waste that occurs when data centers don't operate near their capacity. The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption."

Microsoft declined to comment on the Greenpeace report, but pointed to an official blog post on the company's environmental efforts. Among the successes it touts: reducing its carbon emissions at least 30 percent per unit of revenue below its 2007 baseline.

Greenpeace acknowledges that Amazon and Microsoft are not ranked lowest but says that, along with Apple, they are tech giants that could lead the industry in choosing cleaner energy sources.

Gary Cook, a senior policy analyst with Greenpeace, points to a deal Google signed to purchase 100 megawatts of wind energy per year over 20 years for its data centers in Iowa and Oklahoma.

"Microsoft could arrange for the same types of contracts to use wind," Cook said. "But they've relied mainly on renewable energy credits, which are often not as impactful."

The Greenpeace report also ranks companies based on where they put their data centers.

One good place, apparently, is Quincy, in Grant County.

Cook acknowledges the concern some Quincy residents have that the diesel generators used as backup power in case of outages are polluting the air.

But he thinks, overall, that Quincy is "a good place to go. ... They have access to electricity that's renewably powered, from hydroelectricity. In terms of where [data centers] can go now, it's one of the better places."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.

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