Amazon uses dirty energy, failing at clean energy promise, says Greenpeace

; Date: Thu Feb 14 2019

Tags: Amazon »»»» High Technology »»»» Renewable Energy

Despite a promise to use clean renewable energy, Amazon's largest data center in North Virginia is wholly dependent on dirty electricity from coal and natural gas. Loudoun County Virginia, colloquially known as Data Center Alley, thanks to the many Internet hubs in the Reston/Herndon/Ashburn area, and is served by a utility, Dominion Energy, that relies heavily on coal and natural gas. One of Amazon's biggest AWS hubs is located there, as are data centers owned by many tech giants.

The big issue with data centers is the extremely concentrated electricity consumption. A data center is basically a building stuffed with as many computers as possible. Each of those computers, plus ancillary equipment, require electricity to not only run the equipment but the air conditioners to keep everything cool.

According to ( the Greenpeace 'Click Clean Virginia report, the data centers in Loudoun County consume about 4.6 gigaWatts of electricity, and Amazon's AWS data centers in Northern Virginia consume about 1.7 gigaWatts of electricity. That's more than enough to send Marty McFly back to 1955, or more accurately this is more than 3 coal-fired power plants just for the AWS data centers.

For whatever reason, Northern Virginia became the primary hub for Internet traffic. Loudoun County reckons it handles perhaps 70% of the worlds Internet traffic, thanks to these data centers. The data centers can be organized into one of four classifications:

  • Internet giants who operate their own data center facilities -- such as Facebook and Google
  • Cloud hosting services offered to other companies, like Amazon's AWS, Google's Compute Engine service, and Microsoft's Azure
  • Colocation data centers, that rent data center space to other companies (e.g. Digital Realty, Equinix, RagingWire)
  • Government data centers

Most of the Tech Giants, including Amazon, have made commitments to source 100% renewable energy to drive their data centers. While some, like Facebook and Google, have made progress on this front, Amazon has completely failed.

Dominion Energy's energy mix, Source: Greenpeace

According to Greenpeace, utility companies do respond when their customers demand renewable energy. Amazon's AWS is Dominion's largest customer.

In response to the data centers in its service territory, Dominion is proposing to build a natural gas pipeline. It would bring fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to areas in Virginia and North Carolina. If that path is followed, the whole area will be locked into natural gas which is a fossil fuel and therefore contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

History of Amazon's renewable energy promise, Source: Greenpeace

( The Greenpeace 'Click Clean Virginia report isn't a hit job focusing solely on Amazon. Instead it documents a large portion of the data centers located in the Loudoun County area, and the potential for renewable energy in that vicinity.

About the Author(s)

( David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.