photo by Decumanus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

photo by Decumanus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

So-called ‘cloud computing’ – or basically ‘using the Internet’ to people like you and me – is largely dependent on coal-fired power stations.

To be more precise, all Internet use isn’t cloud computing, but web-based computing is huge and increasing all the time. It allows access to all sorts of data and entertainment housed in massive servers or data centers, many of which rely on highly polluting coal.

“Make IT Green: Cloud Computing and its Contribution to Climate Change”, shows how the launch of quintessential cloud computing devices like the Apple iPad, which offer users access to the “cloud” of online services like social networks and video streaming, can contribute to a much larger carbon footprint of the Information Technology (IT) sector than previously estimated.


According to a Greenpeace report, large concentrations of what is commonly accessed on the web comes from companies that have data warehouses or energy-intensive facilities in coal powered regions of the United States. Greenpeace names Apple and Facebook as particularly guilty of this, especially in light of Apple’s other commendable efforts and innovations regarding environmental practices. Facebook is currently the focus of an online campaign against the popular social network’s choice of coal power.

Google and Yahoo have made better choices for their power sources, argues a Greenpeace press release based on the report. Yahoo built a data center powered by a hydroelectric plant, while Google recently became licensed by the U.S. Government to market energy, which gives the IT giant more control over how and where it gets its power, for example from renewable sources.

From an article in the Independent:

The organisation [Greenpeace] says that, at current rates of growth, data centres and telecoms infrastructure will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatts hours of electricity in 2020, more than triple their current consumption and more than France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.

Greenpeace’s report seems to have a few central goals: it provides information to consumers about how and where large Internet companies get their power – from coal or elsewhere – as well as the various options these companies have. The report also attempts to encourage – or shame – companies like Apple to get in line with the green environmental brand image they are trying to project. Finally, the report shows how something that seems so clean and immaterial like the Internet actually depends on physical machines that need a massive amount of power. If that power comes from coal, the Internet can be a significant driver of pollution.

Lead image by The Library of Congress (source: Flickr)