Are Tech Companies Really Going Green?

Article By : Cabe Atwell

A look at companies with large data centers that are adopting green sustainability standards for production and energy consumption, utilizing a level of renewables to offset fossil fuels.

Data centers, computers, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and the internet provide an effortless experience for those who use them daily. The only aspect that matters is how fast they can perform their various functions, and speed is the name of the game with each new device that hits the market. Consumers rely on new technology to Tweet, chat with friends, stream video, take pictures, work, upload data to Cloud services, and more. Most consumers are also climate-conscious and support companies that have adopted green sustainability standards for production and energy consumption, utilizing a level of renewables to offset fossil fuels.

(Image source: Brett Sayless via Pixabay)

Considering data centers, computers, servers, and mobile device production consume a tremendous amount of power for data throughput, storage, and cooling; it begs the question: are tech companies “going green” as a public relations endeavor, or is the industry capable of offsetting costs using renewable energy? To answer that question, we need to look at the technology industry’s overall energy consumption trends. According to a 2020 report from Energy Innovation, servers and their cooling systems draw the most energy, followed by storage drives and network devices. Some of the largest data centers in the world are packed with tens of thousands of IT devices, which can consume more than 100 megawatts (MW) of electricity or enough to power roughly 80,000 U.S. households. As the number of internet users continues to grow, the demand for increased throughput and storage will also rise, and so will the power demand.

Schematic of a modeling approach to show estimated data center and storage energy use. (Image source: Lawrence Berkeley National Labs)

Official statistics on data center energy use on a national and global level are not currently compiled; thus, mathematical models are used to create estimates. These include “bottom-up” models, which calculate energy use based on stocks of IT devices in data centers and their energy consumption characteristics. This type of model is data-intensive and time-consuming, meaning they only appear every few years. Another method of calculating energy uses “extrapolation” models, which take the data from bottom-up calculations and scales them up based on indicators such as market growth and global IP traffic, as well as several other metrics.

With those methods in mind, a 2020 paper from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California reports that global data centers consumed around 205 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018, or roughly 1% of global energy use. It is also estimated that the world’s data centers have doubled over the last decade and are expected to triple or quadruple in the next ten years. So what percentage, if any, accounts for renewable resources? IT companies, such as Google, state their data centers purchased enough renewable energy to match 100% of their annual global electricity consumption for the fourth year in a row, according to a 2020 report. The company has taken advantage of wind and solar farms near its data centers. By purchasing energy offsets, Google provides the necessary funds for those green energy companies to expand.

(Image source: Google)

Those renewable enterprises are tied into the same national grids that are powered by fossil fuels (predominantly powered by natural gas), allowing Google’s data centers to tap into that renewable supply. The company hasn’t weaned itself entirely off fossil fuel. At this stage, Google is actively working on a framework to source carbon-free energy for its operations on a 24/7 basis using wind, solar, hydro, and even nuclear power. That said, the company consumed about 12.4 terawatt-hours of electricity last year — or more energy than countries like Sri Lanka and Zambia use annually.

Apple is another tech giant that is utilizing green energy and recently unveiled a plan to become carbon neutral across its entire business, manufacturing supply chain, and product lifecycle by 2030, according to a 2019 progress report. The company states it is already carbon neutral at its global headquarters in Cupertino, California, and by 2030, every device on the market will have a net-zero impact on the climate. Like Google, this isn’t necessarily accurate in terms of power consumption, as Apple requires a tremendous amount of energy for day-to-day operations.

According to a report from the Center for Industrial Progress, the company has manufacturers across several countries, primarily using coal to power their respective grids. Apple does indeed utilize renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, but it relies on subsidies for most of its power usage. This includes buying “green credits” from renewable power companies to offset coal and natural gas power consumption. The same can be said for HP, Microsoft, Samsung, and many others, and while those tech companies have extensive plans to become carbon neutral, they all still rely on fossil fuels, at least in some part.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Cabe Atwell is an electrical engineer living in the Chicago area.

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