Greenpeace Accuses AWS of Fueling Virginia Data Center Growth with Dirty Energy

Cloud giant says the activists’ conclusions are based on faulty data but doesn’t reveal the real numbers.

Yevgeniy Sverdlik

February 15, 2019

5 Min Read
The Greenpeace Airship A.E. Bates flies over Silicon Valley in 2014 with a banner asking "Who's The Next To Go Green?"
The Greenpeace Airship A.E. Bates flies over Silicon Valley in 2014 with a banner asking "Who's The Next To Go Green?"Greenpeace

Greenpeace is once again calling out the world’s largest data center operators, accusing them of ignoring the impact of their skyrocketing growth on the environment.

Its primary target this time is Amazon Web Services – namely Amazon’s data centers in Northern Virginia, where the giant already has more cloud infrastructure than anywhere else, and where it continues to build more.

While it’s taken some big steps to get more renewable energy on the grid in the past, AWS hasn’t taken any lately, while continuing to quickly expand its data center footprint in Virginia, the activists charged in a report that came out Wednesday.

In response AWS said Greenpeace relied on inaccurate data about the cloud provider’s energy usage and the fuel mix that powers its data centers in drawing its conclusions. “Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’s current and projected energy usage,” an AWS spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

But the cloud giant stopped short of revealing its actual energy use – a figure it’s never released publicly. Nor has it ever revealed the exact number of data centers it operates and their capacity. (That’s consistent with other cloud providers, who have traditionally kept information about their infrastructure close to the vest.)

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In its report, Greenpeace repeated a complaint it’s made in the past, saying that AWS has been “opaque” about its energy consumption, making it difficult for anyone to understand how much impact its clean-energy efforts have had on neutralizing its operations’ contribution to climate change.

As of December 2018, AWS’s parent company Amazon has invested in 53 renewable energy projects, whose cumulative generation capacity is more than 1,016MW, the company spokesperson said. Six of them are in Virginia.

As of sometime last year, half of AWS’s total energy consumption is matched by renewable generation, the company said. Its statement indicated that there’s more to come this year, “as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.” AWS has committed to getting to 100 percent renewable across its footprint but hasn’t set a deadline for reaching that goal.

Why Virginia?

Northern Virginia has been ground-zero for the explosion of cloud infrastructure construction in recent years. Because of the amount of networks that can be tapped there and because of the many already existing data centers one can connect with, it is the most sought-after location for companies looking for a place to put their servers.

All the biggest cloud infrastructure providers – Amazon, but also Microsoft and Google – have been building up data center capacity in Northern Virginia. Other massive internet platforms, such as Facebook and Salesforce, have been doing the same. In response, data center developers old and new (Digital Realty Trust, CoreSite, Equinix, Iron Mountain, CyrusOne, and CloudHQ, among others) have been buying up land and building facilities as large as they possibly can to become landlords to those platforms.

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All the big platforms and some of the big data center providers in Northern Virginia have corporate commitments to powering their operations entirely with renewable energy. Some have set deadlines to reach those goals and some haven’t. Amazon, Digital Realty, and Equinix are in the latter group.

Dominion’s Fuel Mix

Greenpeace has been tracking the biggest data center operators and their efforts (or lack thereof) to power their facilities with clean energy since 2010, periodically calling out companies it deems the biggest offenders. The goal, the organization has maintained, is to get these companies to use their influence on utilities as some of their biggest customers to push them to clean up their energy sources.

In this week’s report, Greenpeace recognized Amazon’s clean-energy efforts in Virginia in 2015 and 2016, including massive, groundbreaking solar and wind deals in the state and collaboration with utility Dominion Energy to make renewable energy purchases easier for companies. But Amazon has been expanding its data center footprint in the state so quickly (while keeping information about its energy use secret) that it’s been hard to tell whether those efforts have kept up with the expansion. In the activists’ estimate, they have not.

Renewables aren’t easy to get in Virginia, which, as Greenpeace pointed out, is largely a regulated electricity market. Customers in a regulated market don’t have much flexibility in who they buy energy from, being more or less stuck with whatever energy mix the local utility offers.

The main utility in the part of Northern Virginia often referred to as Data Center Alley is Dominion Energy, a century-old giant whose current energy mix is one-third nuclear, one-third gas, one-quarter coal, and 6 percent renewable. It's also been pushing for construction of the new Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would bring more fracked natural gas to the state -- a project Greenpeace opposes.

Dominion is investing in more renewable generation, but not enough, according to Greenpeace. Some data center operators agree. In a joint letter to state regulators last year, Adobe, Akamai, eBay, Equinix, and Salesforce said the utility’s proposed 2018 Integrated Resource Plan “under-deploys renewable energy resources, which is inconsistent with the needs and preferences of the sector that constitutes the largest source of load growth for the utility.”

In a statement, Keith Windle, Dominion’s VP of business development, said providing data center operators with reliable energy and helping them meet their renewable energy goals was the company’s responsibility. The company is committed to reaching 3,000MW of solar and wind generation capacity by 2022 in Virginia, he added.

Dominion owns and operates 260MW of solar projects in Virginia for Amazon across six different projects, the energy company's spokesperson said, pointing out that Greenpeace had misstated the number in its report, which said it was 132MW.

The purpose of the pipeline project is “to replace coal with cleaner natural gas, improve reliability and support the growing use of renewables,” the energy company said in a statement, pointing out that “natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal.

“New infrastructure is needed to improve reliability for industries that are having their gas service shut off on the coldest winter days. It’s also a critical back-up power source to keep the lights on and the economy running when solar and wind aren’t producing power.”

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