Apple, Amazon And Google Data Centres Use Far More Coal Than Everyone Thinks

Web giants are underestimating their data centre coal usage by 30 percent because of “obsolete” data tools

Data centres belonging to web giants such as Google, Amazon and Apple are using more coal than previously thought because of inaccurate and obsolete measuring tools.

Data centres, the cloud powerhouses that fuel our need for online streaming, cloud computing, and connected devices, are using more and more electricity as the world’s population comes online.

Every year, it’s estimated that data centres use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to power New York City twice over.


Whilst web giants are making their best efforts to keep green, such as opening data centre wind farms and using other renewable energy sources, new research suggests that they are using outmoded tools to measure their coal consumption – meaning previous estimates could be drastically wrong.

Apple, Facebook, Google, and others rely on the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID) to estimate their emissions.

However, according to Lux Research, eGRID divides the U.S. electricity grid into just 24 broad regions, and is updated only infrequently – the most recent information available is from 2012.

cloud“Our team of data scientists analysed the North American electric grid, improving the accuracy of carbon reporting by a factor of 80. The results show that many sites are far more reliant on coal than reported – notably, they include many large data centres,” said Ory Zik, Lux Research vice president of analytics.

According to Lux Research, Google underestimates its coal dependence in four out of seven data centres, with particular underestimation happening at its South Carolina data centre. Lux Research said that Google’s emissions are likely larger than they estimated by 42,000 MT CO2e per year – the equivalent of 8,500 additional big cars on the road.

Amazon’s estimates are way off in over 20 data centres, too, the research claims.

“Amazon is less transparent about how it calculates its emissions, but its 23 Virginia-based cloud services data centres use about 43 percent electricity from coal – not 35 percent as inferred using eGRID. This difference amounts to 85,000 MT CO2e per year more – some 5,000 households’ worth of emissions,” said Lux.

Lux Research’s own Grid Network Analysis (GNA) divides the electricity grid into 134 regions, instead of just 24, providing “more granular insight”.

Lux said its own analysis tool makes use of US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data that is updated monthly,rather than three-year-old annual data.

TechWeekEurope contacted Amazon about its green credentials, and the company reiterated its 100 percent renewable target. Apple and Google have yet to respond to requests for comment.

Read more about the quest for renewable cloud here