Amazon's dirty secret: Damning new report reveals shameful environmental record

Unlike other companies, Amazon shows no signs of ending its love affair with fossil fuels [UPDATED]

Published April 2, 2014 2:30PM (EDT)

Jeff Bezos                     (AP/Reed Saxon/John McConnico)
Jeff Bezos (AP/Reed Saxon/John McConnico)

The country with the sixth-largest demand for electricity isn't a country at all, but the Internet. It's a major and continually overlooked drain of energy resources; when done wrong, a source of climate-harming emissions. And Amazon, according to a new report from Greenpeace, is definitely doing it wrong. While other major Internet brands work toward "greening the Internet," the company, along with the large portion of the Internet it hosts through its data centers, remains largely dependent on fossil fuels. Those watching contend it's done little to indicate it's willing to change.

In contrast to the airy image evoked by "the cloud," data centers -- of which, in the U.S., there are thousands -- are massive, hulking affairs that require huge energy inputs (for a better visualization of what's involved, try Google's virtual tour). Just one can require more energy than what's needed to power a medium-sized town. As anyone who uses the Internet won't have a hard time imagining, the demand for capacity is growing by the year. Amazon is leading that charge: at a press event today, it's expected to announce the release of its new TV streaming device, which will make it easier for customers to access Amazon Prime videos and other online content -- some of which, like Netflix, is also hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS).

For several years now, Greenpeace has been pushing major Internet companies to expand responsibly, releasing annual reports that grade giants like Apple and Google on their efforts to power their data centers with renewable energy. Its latest report, released today, finds significant cause to be optimistic -- with the glaring exception of Amazon. The company, according to Greenpeace, "remains among the dirtiest and least transparent companies in the sector, far behind its major competitors, with zero reporting of its energy or environmental footprint to any source or stakeholder."

AWS isn't just the home of Jeff Bezos' empire: The company's servers host Netflix, Pinterest, Spotify and Vine, among other widely used websites, as well. Its adherence to dirty energy -- which Greenpeace defines as oil, gas, coal and nuclear power -- means those sites' capacity to stream video and store data, and our use of those sites, is implicated as well.

The most damning part of the report, though, is the fact that other, major Internet companies are actually making significant changes towards a greener Internet. Greenpeace commends six major brands, including Apple, Facebook and Google, for both aiming to power their data centers with 100 percent renewable energy and for showing early but promising signs that they're eventually going to get there. According to Greenpeace spokesperson David Pomerantz, Apple is already procuring enough renewable energy to meet all of its data centers' electricity demand.

In contrast to such pledges, AWS merely promises to "continue to work hard on our own, and alongside our power providers all over the world, to offer our services in an environmentally friendly way in all of our Regions." Its website says that some of its data regions use "100 percent carbon-free power," but hasn't released the information to back those claims up.

The ability of other companies to force change makes it difficult for Amazon to argue that it just isn't able to go renewable. As an example, the report highlights the way Apple, Facebook and Google collectively pressured Duke Energy -- the United States' largest electric utility -- into opening the market to renewable electricity purchases in North Carolina last year.

"This is a big deal," The Atlantic reported at the time, because the program, which was approved late last year, can help spur the renewable energy needed to meet the massive demand from data centers. Reporter Todd Woody explained:

Here’s how Duke’s Green Source Rider program would work. The program is open to any company that consumes 1 megawatt or more of electricity. A big power user like Google, which operates a giant data center in North Carolina, would file an application with Duke to buy a certain amount of electricity a year from renewable sources. Duke would procure that electricity and charge Google a $500 monthly fee as well as an extra $0.02 per kilowatt-hour to cover the costs of the program. Customers, in turn, would receive a credit on their bills for the renewable energy produced.

Two key things: First, the electricity generated would not count toward Duke’s obligation to meet a state renewable energy mandate, which means the program will produce additional green power. Second, any Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) produced as a result of the Green Source Rider will not be transferred or sold to other companies that could use them to claim to go green. RECs are credits for renewable energy production and can be sold with the idea being they will encourage developers to build more projects. But if RECs are “retired” rather than sold, a company that wants green bragging rights will have to actually buy green power from a new project rather than the credits from one already built.”

It was a much-needed boost, Woody also noted: in a 2013 company report, Duke revealed that a teensy .039 percent of the energy it generated in the Carolinas came from a renewable source (in this case, solar).

Compare that to what just went down with Amazon's data centers in Oregon. The company's demand for energy pushed its electricity provider, the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, to grow nearly large enough that state law would require it to meet stricter renewable energy mandates. Umatilla's response was to fight that law, proposing a ballot measure that would, in essence, gut it. "Amazon has been content to let Umatilla do just that," the Greenpeace report contends, "exerting none of its leverage as one of Umatilla's biggest customers to pressure the utility to call off its assault on the law." The ultimate compromise, reached early this year, convinced Umatilla to pull the ballot measure by allowing it to purchase cheap RECs -- it can now get those "green bragging rights" described above without having to invest in renewable energy projects.

The commitment to "greening the Internet" by major Internet brands like Apple, Facebook and Google is "having a profound impact in the real world," the report says, "shifting investments from legacy coal, gas and nuclear power plants to renewable energy technologies, and disrupting the status quo among electric utilities." As technology companies expand into China, the report also notes, this will be even more important. Between 1.5 and 3 percent of its (mostly coal-based) energy generation in 2011 went toward powering the Internet; the country is expected to add 200 million new Internet users by 2015. At the end of last year, Amazon announced plans to launch its first China-based data center. "If companies keep growing without any real commitment to renewable energy, as Amazon is currently doing, they'd be helping to extend China's current problems with coal and pollution," said Pomerantz.

It should be noted that other companies with less recognizable names, which rent out data center space to smaller customers, didn't tend to receive high grades on renewable energy or transparency from Greenpeace, either. (Nor, for that matter, did Twitter). But Amazon, because of its size, influence and name-recognition, is in a better place than most to help disrupt that status quo -- if it only committed itself to doing so.

UPDATE 4/2/2014 12:30 PM: AWS responded with a statement questioning Greenpeace's data.

“We agree with Greenpeace that technology leaders should help safeguard the environment by implementing both efficient use and clean sources of energy," an AWS spokesperson said. "However Greenpeace’s report, 'Clicking Green,' misses the mark by using false assumptions on AWS operations and inaccurate data on AWS energy consumption. We provided this feedback to Greenpeace prior to publishing their report." They have not released any further information about their energy consumption.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Amazon Data Centers Internet Jeff Bezos Renewable Energy