As Greenpeace Knocks IT Sector For Bad Energy Habits, Google Buys More Wind Power

On Thursday, Greenpeace published a study on energy consumption and choices made by IT companies including Akamai, (Amazon Web Services), Apple, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, entitled “How Dirty Is Your Data?”. The study roundly criticizes the sector, especially Facebook, for using “dirty energy” — power produced from hydrocarbon based sources, especially coal — to meet growing IT demand. It also criticized companies for concealing details about their own, overall energy footprint and practices.

Greenpeace specifically noted (excerpt from the environmental activists’ own summary):

    Data centers, which house the explosion of virtual information, currently consume 1.5 to 2 percent of all global electricity and are growing at a rate of 12 percent each year

    Companies in the sector, as a whole, do not release information on their energy use and its associated global warming emissions

    One of the most popular social media companies, Facebook, is among the most dependent on coal-powered electricity at 53.2 percent

Shortly after their report circulated, Google announced that Google Energy LLC had signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) to buy 100.8 megawatts of wind-generated electricity to run its Okalahoma data centers from a NextEra Energy Resources’s Minco II Wind Energy Center under development in Grady and Caddo counties in Oklahoma. The companies hope the wind plant will be operational in late 2011.

If you’re familiar with PPAs, skip this paragraph. If not, here’s some detail: PPAs are usually conditional agreements between a renewable energy development company and a power purchaser that really begin if or when a proposed facility comes online. This particular deal amounts to Google saying to NextEra Energy, we will buy this wind power if you build the facility and deliver the power as promised. Technically, there’s no guarantee when a PPA is signed that a given project will be completely financed, or completed at the scale proposed. Likewise, there’s no guarantee that the amount of energy produced by a proposed facility, will in reality live up to the amount offered through the PPA.

Even Greenpeace praised Google’s efforts, and issued a special statement to the press about Google’s new wind PPA. But how much of a difference do PPAs make? Are such purchases meaningful, in the grand scope of Google’s energy consumption?

TechCrunch reached out to Google’s green energy czar, Bill Weihl, to try to obtain further details. We asked: How much energy do Google’s data centers in Oklahoma consume in a year? How much power did Google consume, overall, last year? How much of that came from outside, renewable sources? How does Google measure its energy footprint? Does the company use metrics like those modeled by Global Reporting Initiative?

Weihl declined to comment on the nitty-gritty details, for now. He did note:

“We have cut our energy consumption by more than 50% over the last five to six years through improvements in server and data center designs. We’ve also been reporting the operational power usage at a number of our large facilities for more than two years.”

He referencesdthese reports which include Power Usage Effectiveness numbers, representing “the ratio of the total power consumed by a data center to the power consumed by the IT equipment that populate the facility.” (They’re not the user-friendly stats that some investors, environmentalists and energy professionals would prefer to see.)

Weihl was able to discuss what Google looks for as far as technology, projects or contracts in the green energy space. He said:

Efficiency is critical, but it is not enough…We will continue to look for improvements, there but we’re also working on these energy initiatives. We only invest in things that make economic sense over the long-term.

Here’s what we look for: If you’re talking about changing server architecture and the data center, we need to know what the capital cost is, and what’s the total cost of ownership going to be over the life of the equipment. In the case of a PPA, we need to know what are the power costs. On PPAs in particular, that whole area is complicated in some ways.

A big issue for Google is the question of “additionality.” Basically, we ask: will our purchase [of power from a renewable energy provider] result in something new happening beyond business-as-usual.

If we go to our local utility, see they have 20% wind power they can offer, and ask them to assign that to us, are we considered that green? If the utility just assigned it to us, and the same amount of ground power is still going to other people, not reducing the emissions, then it’s not ideal.

We try hard to look for projects and agreements that result in more renewable power being put on the grid.

Whether the efforts of Google — and other IT giants — are enough to satisfy Greenpeace today, making IT cleaner, and more efficient is increasing in importance throughout the sector. A survey of 650 IT business executives, out from CompTIA research this week found: “In 2009 only 9 percent of firms rated green IT as an upper half organizational priority. That number rose to 37 percent in 2011, and is expected to rise to 54 percent in 2013.”