April 3, 2014

Amazon Web Services is powered by dirty energy


A Dominion plant in Virginia, where the Netflix  emissions hide.

A Dominion plant in Virginia, where the Netflix emissions hide.

It’s time to add acidified oceans, rampant drought and flood, and a massive surge in migrant populations to the already impressive list of Amazon’s misdeeds. And we thought showrooming was bad.

The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldberg discussed a new Greenpeace report on Wednesday, which looks at the energy usage of data centers—vast buildings full of heat-leaking server racks that need to be both powered and cooled—and Amazon Web Services ranked dead last by all measures.

We discussed just yesterday how massive Amazon Web Services is, both as a foundational strata of the internet itself, and as a revenue driver for Amazon. But that massive reach demands a big energy footprint and, in the case of Amazon in particular it seems, a big reliance on dirty energy. Goldberg writes,

At peak times in the evening, streaming of Netflix and YouTube [both of which run on AWS] accounts for about 50% of US internet traffic. Much of that traffic is being moved along by electricity coming from coal. In Virginia, the east coast hub of Amazon’s operation with 10 data centres, the company gets just 2% of its electricity from renewable sources. Nearly 40% of its electricity is generated by coal, Greenpeace said.

We engage in a lot of doomsaying about Amazon around here. Yesterday alone I made comments about some sort of drone hive, and referenced the Borg. But for a company the size of Amazon, with an energy footprint this large, to not have committed themselves to even token efforts to move away from these kinds of energy is still shocking, even to us at MobyLives.

Much of the Greenpeace report focuses on AWS, and the majority of their data centers are in Virginia. But why?

“It’s a good grid and it’s relatively cheap, cost-wise,” says Matt Wasson, Director of Programs at the environmental group Appalachian Voices. “They try to keep it business-friendly. Northern Virginia’s grid is phenomenal, compared to say South Alabama, where you might get cheaper energy.”

“It’s a very permissive environment for coal mining,” according to Wasson “with very generous tax subsidies for mining and burning coal—especially Virginia coal. There are pretty big subsidies. That’s one of the biggest barriers. [And] There’s a stream of corporate welfare from mostly out of state companies.”

Amazon are buying dirty energy in Virginia to save a buck. At the expense of the entire planet. Again, this is business as usual for many companies, but for a tech giant—certainly one with the power of Amazon—this is extraordinary.

Data centers in Northern Virginia suck up about 500 MW per year. That’s almost the entire energy output of an average coal-powered plant all on their own, or the energy footprint of a city of about 140,000 people. The 40% of that power provided by coal means dumping about 1.5 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, and Virginia’s local electricity monopoly Dominion estimates that data center demand will double in the next five years.

 “Dominion are… the single largest source for greenhouse gas emissions in the state of Virginia,” says Dawone Robinson, Virginia Policy Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Virginia is also one of the only states that has no utility scale wind or solar. A lot of that is due to the heavy influence from our utilities.”

Not only that but as Greenpeace reports, “Dominion’s long-term plan that it submitted to regulators shows that it does not intended on making any significant increase in its investment in renewable energy over the next 15 years.”

And while Dominion may be providing the power, a customer the size of Amazon abslutely holds the reins. “As a large industry and a large company in the state they can put pressure on whom they are getting their power from,” says Robinson. “If Amazon kicks up a little dust, people might pay attention. They have a role to play and it could be a powerful one, if they were to make that case.”

The technology for Amazon and Dominion to remedy this is already available. Apple, according to Greenpeace, has led the way, with efforts like the purchase of two 20MW solar plants. Facebook rates better than Amazon. Even Microsoft—the evil empire itself—scored better.

“If you look at what a lot of various big companies are doing,” says Wasson, “you’ve got a picture perfect model: Google going 100% renewable by 2020. I don’t think there is ever a perfect option for that—there’s all sorts of trading that has to be done. It’s totally doable. [But] these companies are doing it. It’s crazy that Amazon isn’t doing it.”

If one reason for Amazon’s uncaring ruination of our planet is frugality, the other is secrecy. Part of Greenpeace’s failing grade for the company arises from Amazon’s refusal to release any kind of energy data about AWS, including where they buy their electricity.

It’s among the most perverse examples of how a corporate culture can have far-reaching repercussions—in this case as wide and distant as the future of our planet. Amazon is famously secretive and viciously frugal—it’s one of their core principles. Part of that frugality has meant cheaper prices for their customers. But as we’ve pointed out often here on MobyLives serving the customer at the expense of bookstores, of literature or, now, at the expense of a fifth to half of all species on the planet, is not a defensible choice. We have a word for that kind of decision: immoral.

Again, Wasson: “[I]n order for me to keep shopping on Amazon, which I would like to do—occasionally, at least—that’s only going to happen if they’re going to make aggressive moves to renewables. I don’t think I’m outside of the mainstream.”


Alex Shephard contributed to this report. 

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.