The huge cloud computing cluster in Northern Virginia needs to be greener, and soon. That’s the message from environmental group Greenpeace, which says Virginia utility Dominion Energy has not kept pace with the data center industry’s appetite for renewable energy.
Greenpeace is specifically calling out Amazon Web Services, the world’s largest cloud provider, saying its adoption of green power is falling behind the growth of its cloud infrastructure.
Amazon vigorously disputed Greenpeace’s conclusions and data, which in some cases seem to overstate the industry’s current energy impact, while Dominion said it is working to provision more renewable energy to meet customer’s needs.
Greenpeace’s report renews the long-running public jousting between the environmental group and the tech industry, in which Greenpeace has pressured leading data center operators – especially Facebook, Apple and Amazon – to use their buying power to convince the U.S. utility industry to embrace renewable energy.
Greenpeace’s new report titled “Clicking Clean: The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley” uses public data about generator permits and PUE data to estimate the cloud computing sector’s use of electricity in Northern Virginia. The group contrasts the energy used by cloud data centers with the amount of renewable energy being provisioned by the industry.
Data Centers and Climate Change
In many ways, cloud computing has emerged as a surprising force in the shift to renewable energy to power the Internet economy, with Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple making public commitments to sourcing renewable energy for their cloud data centers. These companies have used power purchase agreements (PPAs) to buy wind and solar energy to offset their data center energy use.
This has been challenging in Virginia, where Dominion Energy provides power capacity for data centers, but sources the majority of its energy from natural gas or nuclear plants. Northern Virginia accounted for 55 percent of all new data center space in 2018, with more than 270 megawatts of capacity leased. Meanwhile, Dominion Energy sources just 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, with most of its energy coming from nuclear power (33.8%), natural gas (33.6%) and coal (26.5%).
Greenpeace says this is a major barrier to creating a “clean cloud” supported by renewable energy. As in past campaigns, Greenpeace has targeted a high-profile tech company to illustrate its grievances with utilities.
“Despite its commitment to renewable energy, the world’s largest cloud company, Amazon Web Services (AWS), is hoping no one will notice that it’s still powering its massive data centers with fracked gas and dirty coal,” writes Greenpeace. “Amazon’s dramatic expansion in Virginia in the past two years could lead to more pipelines, more pollution, and more problems for our climate.”
Amazon Web Services challenged Greenpeace’s math and said it remains steadfast in its sustainability goals.
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“Greenpeace has chosen to report inaccurate data about the energy consumption and renewable mix of AWS’s infrastructure and did not perform proper due-diligence by fact checking with AWS before publishing,” said an AWS spokesperson. “Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’s current and projected energy usage. … AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100% renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50% renewable energy in 2018.”
Dominion’s Generation Mix at Issue
The dispute highlights how the energy use of the data center industry has placed it on the front lines of the larger conversation about America’s opportunity to transition to renewable sources like wind and solar power.
“Data centers serve as factories of the information age,” writes Greenpeace. “The explosive demand of internet-based platforms and services has fueled a dramatic expansion in both the size and number of data centers, making them collectively one of the largest sources of new electricity demand globally. Given the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible to combat the most extreme consequences of climate change, the source of electricity deployed by the local utility in these data center hotspots takes on global significance.”
Greenpeace estimates that the total power for the data center sector in Virginia, including current facilities and future demand, approaches 4.5 gigawatts of capacity. That number is higher than other independent assessments, including mid-2018 data from DCF and datacenterHawk that estimated Northern Virginia’s operating data center footprint at about 1 gigawatt. Greenpeace says much of its estimate of 4.5 gigawatts represents future capacity that is being provisioned as part of the industry’s effort to secure long-term runway for growth in Northern Virginia.
Dominion says it has invested more than $1 billion in bringing additional solar power online, and currently has 30 solar facilities generating 824 megawatts of solar power. The company says it has a goal of adding 3 gigawatts of solar and wind energy by 2022.
Pacing and Priorities
Although that’s a considerable investment, Greenpeace notes that Dominion filings with the state indicate that renewables are unlikely to exceed 13 percent of its mix within the next 15 years. The group argues that Dominion “has strongly resisted any meaningful transition to renewable sources of electricity,” even though five out of Dominion’s largest 20 customers are data center companies that have committed to becoming 100 percent renewable. Greenpeace specifically takes issue with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project that would boost the supply of natural gas in Dominion’s service area.
The group is calling on the data center industry to help alter Dominion’s course.
“Given the economic influence and size as electricity customers, data center companies have a lot of influence collectively, and it will be needed to overcome the strong hold that Dominion has in Richmond,” said Gary Cook, IT Sector Analyst for Greenpeace.
Dominion said it is working to balance its energy mix. but the process takes time.
“A vast number of the world’s data centers reside in our service area, and it is our responsibility to not only provide them with reliable energy, but to help them meet their renewable energy goals,” said Keith Windle, vice president of Business Development for Dominion. “Our strategy for the future is on balancing our portfolio to meet our customers’ future energy needs in the most reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable manner possible.”
Is AWS Meeting its Commitments?
On the customer side, Greenpeace singled out Amazon Web Services, which has the largest data center footprint in Northern Virginia. Amazon has publicly committed to using 100 percent renewable energy for its infrastructure, and provides details about its progress on its AWS Sustainability web site. The company says it has achieved 50 percent renewable usage, including power purchase agreements (PPAs) with Dominion for generation from six solar farms in Virginia representing about 260 megawatts of capacity.
Greenpeace says AWS’ pledged commitment to sustainability is not keeping pace with its data center growth. Greenpeace’s report says Amazon has provisioned 1.7 gigawatts of power for current and future demand, with 55 data centers operating or under construction in Virginia.
The group says that although AWS has added an estimated 600 megawatts of data center capacity in Virginia over the past two years, it has not added any new renewable energy supply, leading Greenpeace to argue that AWS no longer appears to be honoring its commitment to 100 percent renewables.
“AWS has not indicated its future plans to us for renewable procurement, in Virginia or elsewhere,” said Cook. “AWS did do a big chunk of PPAs from 2015-16, which was quite encouraging. Since then, we have seen only growth on the demand side, and no new supply of renewables.
“This is in sharp contrast to their biggest US competitors, Microsoft and Google, who have continued to expand, but also have been lining up new renewable projects as they expand,” Cook added. “They both still have work to do in a number of places, but it’s a striking difference.”
Amazon says Greenpeace is overlooking its efforts on renewable power.
“The report does not properly highlight that AWS has been a major investor in solar projects across the Commonwealth of Virginia and played a leading role in making it easier for us and other companies to bring more renewable energy to Virginia through our Market-Based Rate with Dominion Virginia Power,” said an AWS spokesperson. “As of December 2018, Amazon and AWS have invested in 53 renewable energy projects (6 of which are in Virginia), totaling over 1,016 megawatts (MW) and are expected to deliver over 3,075,636 million megawatt hours (MWh) of energy annually. Further, AWS advocates for tax and regulatory policies at the federal and state levels to promote renewable energy usage.
“AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100% renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50% renewable energy in 2018,” the statement continued. “We have a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019 as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.”
Greener Options for Virginia Cloud Operators
Some companies are innovating to try and procure renewable power, as in the recent deal in which Digital Realty procured 80 megawatts of solar power on behalf of Facebook. The renewable energy Digital Realty contracted with SunEnergy1 to offset Facebook’s use of energy to power its servers and storage equipment in Digital Realty data centers in Northern Virginia. The companies say the agreement is the first “back-to-back” utility-scale transaction in which a data center landlord uses a virtual power purchase agreement for a renewable energy supply dedicated to a customer.
Greenpeace advocated for two strategies data center operators can pursue to boost renewable energy in Virginia.
The first is to pressure Dominion. Cook noted that last year a group of tech companies appealed to Virginia regulators to boost the availability of wind and solar power for data centers. Dominion’s 15-year generation plan “still under-deploys renewable energy sources, which is inconsistent with the needs and preferences of the sector that constitutes the largest source of load growth for the utility,” said the letter, signed by Equinix, Akamai, eBay, Salesforce.com and Adobe.
“Hopefully more companies will weigh in and push for a much different investment plan from Dominion,” said Cook. “Instead of spending $3.5 billion on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, demand that investments be directed toward rapid build out of solar, wind (including new offshore wind) and storage needed to drive the transition needed.
The other option is to leave Dominion and seek energy from a renewable provider, which is allowed in Virginia.
“Many companies are sending a mixed message to Dominion by making public commitments to 100 percent renewable energy, but continuing their rapid growth as a customer regardless,” said Cook. “Leaving the utility is an option, and would send a strong signal to Dominion (and other utilities) that if they are not able to get a supply of renewables they need, they will vote with their feet.”
Dominion pointed to another option – a renewable rate called Schedule RF (renewable facility) that will allow commercial and industrial customers to offset their electricity needs with renewable energy certificates (RECs). A customer must bring new electrical load and agree to purchase the RECs from renewable energy sources in Virginia. The “green tariff” was designed through Dominion’s collaborations with AWS and Facebook.
Given the huge amount of data center capacity planned for Virginia, the state’s progress on renewables is likely to continue.
“Virginia is an important reminder that utilities will only begin to scale up renewable generation when large customers seriously pursue their commitments – either by pushing for stronger renewable energy policies locally or by choosing to site facilities only in places with high levels of renewables,” Greenpeace concluded.