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Tech Companies Are Moving To 100% Clean Energy, Some Faster Than Others

Apple, Google, and Facebook all earn high marks for executing on plans to power their massive server farms with renewables. Is Amazon lagging behind?

With people storing gigabytes-worth of selfies online and live-streaming their naps, cloud data centers from companies like Apple, Amazon, and Facebook demand more and more electricity these days. To keep their carbon footprints in check, major tech companies have been making moves to use cleaner, renewable energy sources for years.

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More recently, the pace has sped up. A new report from Greenpeace, which has been pushing tech companies in this direction, applauds Apple, Google, and Facebook’s work especially, while calling out Amazon for lagging behind.

Amazon Web ServicesGreenpeace

Apple in particular has been a leader recently, earning top marks from Greenpeace among 17 companies ranked. After announcing a 100% renewable goal in 2013, it has been most “aggressive” in getting there and “set the bar” for the industry, the group says.

In the last year, it announced an $850 million plan to build a solar energy facility to power its California operations–the largest non-utility solar deal ever in the U.S.–and announced new solar projects in China. Even as its iCloud–and thus its demands for servers and energy to power them–expands, it’s managed to keep pace: Its U.S. operations run on 100% renewable energy today, as do all its data centers. Globally, 87% of its operations are powered renewably. Greenpeace also notes that Apple has pushed companies that rent them space in data centers, known as colocation companies, to get on board with the plan.

Other companies that get relatively high marks include Facebook and Google, which according to Greenpeace, currently power 49% and 46% of their cloud operations with clean energy respectively and have published plans on how to get to 100%.

AppleGreenpeace

Like these companies, Amazon did commit to moving to 100% renewable energy last November over the long-term. But Greenpeace still gave it poor marks, partly because it lacked the same basic transparency about how it will achieve its goals–and, at least to Greenpeace, didn’t appear to be moving towards them yet. For example, the company is expanding its data center operations in the coal-heavy state, Virginia, Greenpeace says, and also hasn’t justified its claims that its Frankfurt data center facility is carbon-free. The company, however, is taking some positive steps, including its first direct renewable energy purchase in January, a 150 megawattt wind farm in Indiana.

An Amazon Web Services spokesperson called Greenpeace’s report “inaccurate and misguided,” partly for putting too much emphasis on clean energy and not enough on energy and resource efficiency–the latter being a key issue to tech companies–and partly for using data that Amazon told Greenpeace was wrong. Relatively recently, Amazon released figures estimating that it is operating on about 25% renewable energy today, and that it expects to reach at least 40% by 2016, with announcements coming about how it will achieve its plans. (Greenpeace calculated Amazon’s energy mix to be 23% clean energy, and hammered the company for not providing better data and explanations to back up its own figures.)

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One barrier toward progress is tech companies’ decisions to site data centers powered by utilities in coal-heavy states like North and South Carolina (in Google’s case) and in Virginia (in Amazon’s case). Instead, Greenpeace hopes tech companies can use their influence to convince utilities and policymakers to build more renewable facilities in order to secure their business, which is why there’s an “advocacy” element to the score. In some cases this is happening. For example, Google and Apple announced data centers in Arizona, striking solar deals with a utility that “had been otherwise hostile to solar development,” according to the report.

Click here to read the full report.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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