Greenpeace Sets Its Sights On Amazon Web Services

Peter Judge

Environmental pressure group Greenpeace wants to Amazon Web Services to use renewable energy. Peter Judge thinks it has a fight on its hands

Greenpeace has made a conscious effort to be more positive in its latest data centre report. It’s called “Clicking Green”, which is certainly more upbeat than previous efforts which decried “Dirty Data”, picking on Facebook and Apple in particular.

It gives its previous villains due credit for their reform, praising Apple, Google and Facebook’s conversion to renewable energy. But it slates Amazon Web Services for relying on “dirty” fossil powered energy straight from the grid, powering “a significant part of the Internet” and only getting 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Amazon LogoAmazon bites back

Amazon’s response has been to criticise the accounting in the figures. It says it provided data to Greenpeace to clear up “inaccuracies”, and also points out that at least some of its data centres run on renewable energy: “We like offering customers the choice of being able to run carbon-free, and we love doing it without charging a premium,” said the company statement.

I expect that’s just a placeholder response, and we haven’t heard the last of this, but the story from here will not be a simple one.
If Greenpeace’s criticism had any effect on Facebook and Apple’s evolving strategy, it would be because those two organisations rely heavily on consumer choice. If Apple is perceived as an irresponsible it just might have a slight impact on the number of iPhones sold.

Amazon is a big consumer brand too, but the connection between buying books and movies and the AWS part of the business is less obvious. AWS works through channels and Greenpeace’s constituency is probably unaware that Amazon supports so many of the other brands it uses: Netflix, Tumblr and so on – those people use.

People won’t buy fewer books online because Amazon’s web arm uses coal-fired electricity, and even if they do, these are separate businesses, and AWS won’t be affected. I can imagine a consumer campaign aimed at moving Tumblr or other social media sites off AWS, but it would need a lot more consumer awareness to get going.

Meanwhile, Amazon itself has yet to respond with its own technical arguments about green, and if its data centre efficiency expert James Hamilton wades in, things will get interesting.

Hamilton has been scathing about solar power. Apple has had to chop down vast acres of forest to get enough electricity to power a single data centre, he says, and it is better to make deals which fund renewable energy development elsewhere for the whole grid to benefit from.

Similarly, on-site generation looks wrong to him, as it might introduce more risk that power may be interrupted.

Hamilton – and Amazon – has a simpler message. Public cloud computing is just more efficient. Instead of powering under-utilised data centres with different energy sources, the emissions of the Internet as a whole can be reduced by combining them all in one place, where the peak-to-average fluctuations are ironed out.

Somewhat obviously, that happens to be exactly the message that backs Amazon’s business model, but it’s a valid argument.

Already, predictions that data centre energy usage would rocket have been proven false: in 2007, it was predicted that data centre energy would grow from 1.5 percent of the US grid in 2010, to three percent in 2010. It turns out that greater efficiency kept it down to the same percentage or less.
If Greenpeace keeps up the pressure, and finds a way to engage the general public, Amazon is going to have to make this argument in more forceful terms which everyone will understand.

That will be interesting to see.

A version of this article appeared on Green Data Center News.