A tale of two tech giants: Amazon and Google see sustainability differently

Source: Joshua Learn, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, November 24, 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

One technology giant on the forefront of renewable energy implementation has come out on why it rolled back its research and development while another, which has been largely inactive on the sustainability front, has just announced a new goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy use.

While Google Inc. engineers have finally spoken up this week in an article in IEEE Spectrum about the reasons the company has cut funding for the research and development of renewable energy, Amazon.com Inc.’s Web services division just announced “a long-term commitment” to achieving full reliability on renewable energy for its “global infrastructure footprint.”

“We’ve been evaluating these companies for a while, and [Google] has been the most consistent with putting their money where their mouth is,” Gary Cook, senior information technology campaigner of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview. “Amazon has been seemingly frozen in time up until this week.”

Greenpeace activists have criticized Amazon in the past for moving slowly to improve on renewable energy while companies like Microsoft Corp. and Google make investments in sustainability (ClimateWire, July 16).

Cook said that the new announcement is a good first step but that Greenpeace is still hoping Amazon pushes harder.

“They want to enter the race. They’re competing head to head with companies like Google and Microsoft,” Cook said of Amazon, but he added that it hasn’t given any indication about how it plans to do that. “Right now, Amazon still hasn’t revealed their footprint.”

Amazon sprouts carbon-neutral regions

Amazon’s release said that it intends on making its on-premise data centers that play host to cloud computing giants like Dropbox Inc., Tumblr and Netflix Inc. energy-efficient. Cook said that through the data generated by these companies, Amazon hosts something like 60 to 70 percent of regular Web traffic in the United States at night.

“They are a huge part of the Internet,” he said.

The company said that the fact that it hosts the data and servers of so many companies means it is efficient based on its very nature.

“Because [Amazon Web Services] pools resources, customers who deploy applications in the cloud reduce their carbon footprint by default and significantly reduce the amount of environmental waste that occurs when individual data centers don’t operate near their capacity,” the release said.

The company also pointed out some of its carbon-neutral infrastructure.

“AWS introduced its first carbon-neutral region — US West (Oregon) — in 2011. Today, AWS offers customers three AWS Regions that are 100 percent carbon-neutral — US West (Oregon), EU (Frankfurt), and AWS GovCloud (US).”

In some ways, Google’s rolling back on its research and development into renewable technologies is symbolic of a greater understanding of the larger needs of humanity in general in terms of eventually reducing our carbon footprint on the planet.

Engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork said that the canceling of Google’s RE<C program — a research and development fund to look at ways to achieve renewable energy sources that were as cheap as coal — was due to the realization that carbon emissions wouldn’t be significantly reduced even in the best-case scenario of “wholesale adoption of renewable energy” by Google and other companies.

Google rethinks sustainability

“At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change,” Koningstein and Fork wrote. “We now know that to be a false hope — but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.”

They said their plan to outcompete coal wouldn’t work.

“Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change. This realization was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change.”

Another recent study from the Breakthrough Institute has found similar problems with the development of energy efficiency — namely, that increasing energy efficiency of technologies like light bulbs or other things has never led to the net reduction of power use in the past as it tends to only result in the proliferation of energy and resulting development (ClimateWire, Oct. 9).

Instead, Google decided research and development funds would be better applied to creating new technologies that would improve the way electricity grids dispatched and transmitted generated power.

“Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change,” they said, mentioning fusion technology, cheaply synthesized methane to replace natural gas and other possible developments.

Cook said that Greenpeace supports Google’s shift and focus and pointed out that the company has continued to invest in renewable energy such as wind farms and other technologies — it’s only the research and development that has been rerouted.

He said that the company is focusing on such technologies as making a smarter grid better equipped to deal with energy from multiple sources like wind or solar.

“They are calling up some challenges that we still need to solve long term,” he said. “They actually went much bigger and more tangible.”