Greenpeace Misses the Forest for the Trees

Swiss National Park

This week, Greenpeace came out with a report that takes several IT companies – Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft – to task for relying on so-called dirty energy to power their data centers. Even disregarding the fact that the report, How Clean is Your Cloud?, inexplicably puts nuclear power on par with coal power as an unclean energy source, Greenpeace’s analysis ironically misses the forest for the trees. While it is indeed unfortunate that some IT companies and businesses in general may derive their energy from undesirable sources, the underlying issue of real importance is that clean energy is too expensive.

ITIF said as much last year when commenting on the release of a similar Greenpeace study:

If I’m a typical business owner, there is virtually no economic reason why I’d want to pay 12 cents per kWh for wind power when I could buy coal or gas power at 6 cents. So Greenpeace could request every industry on the planet, not just IT, to buy more clean power, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. But relying on private industry to freely act against their economic self-interest and substantially increase their energy costs is not a strategy for success.

The point is further illustrated by Greenpeace’s own business decisions. They criticize cloud computing providers for using low-cost energy, yet choose these same providers to host their reports—probably because it’s cheap and efficient to do so.  (For the record, Issuu runs on Amazon cloud services.) They also claim there is little evidence that using the cloud is green. Yet surely they would agree that distributing their reports electronically over the Internet is more efficient than printing and mailing paper copies?

The scope of the challenge is such that even Google, which Greenpeace gave an “A” grade for renewable energy investments and general advocacy on the issue in the report, decided to shut down their RE<C program late last year. The RE<C – renewable energy less (cheaper) than coal – initiative sought to foster research in potential breakthrough energy technologies, but by Google’s own admission, “other institutions seem better positioned than Google to take this work to the next level.” In lieu of RE<C, Google has invested in several renewable energy projects, but ultimately, if companies are to increasingly turn to clean energy, we need to “focus like a laser on how to make clean energy cheap enough to power the world, and seek policies that actually achieve that without reducing competitiveness and costing people jobs,” as last year’s ITIF blog post went on to note. That requires a comprehensive clean energy innovation strategy, not just corporate scolding.

But if you disagree with us, feel free to head over to Greenpeace.org and show your support.  Just be sure not to donate (they use the cloud provider Convio), click on their Facebook page (a major no, no), or follow them on Twitter (think of the children!).

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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About the author

Daniel Castro is a Senior Analyst with ITIF specializing in information technology (IT) policy. His research interests include health IT, data privacy, e-commerce, e-government, electronic voting, information security and accessibility. Before joining ITIF, Mr. Castro worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He contributed to GAO reports on the state of information security at a variety of federal agencies. He has a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in Information Security Technology and Management from Carnegie Mellon University.