About green web hosting

Its carbon footprint and the truth behind 100% renewable energy.

6 mins

I was recently asked whether we used carbon neutral hosting providers. I thought it an excellent question. It had been a while since I’d looked up environmental credentials of various cloud platforms, so I went to find out. A couple of hours later, I finally emerged from a Googling rabbit hole and felt relatively enlightened. I thought I’d share what I learnt.

TLDR; AWS is shit. Google Cloud is less so.

I suppose I had some romantic notion that it was mostly about hosting companies in Iceland, all powered by geothermal energy and who cooled down servers by opening the window. And it appears there are some excellent innovations out there designed to keep the electricity consumption down, like hosting at the bottom of the sea, or using heat from data centres to heat swimming pools. And in some cases, energy is created by renewables – sometimes actually onsite. But not all is as it seems; statements from any company claiming to run on 100% renewable energy can be an exercise in accounting as much as anything else, and tech firms are definitely part of this trend.

Some background

In order to understand what is actually going on, one must enter the world of Energy Attribute Certificates, or EACs (in the UK/EU) and Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs (in the US). The premise is reasonably simple: any supplier for a power grid whose source is renewable can not only sell the electricity that it has been generated, but also sell the ‘claim’ that the electricity was from a renewable source. And that claim is there for companies – and individuals – to purchase. That allotment of green energy can be purchased by anyone on the grid. By its very nature, a national grid is made up of loads of different energy sources – coal, gas, nuclear, wind and solar etc. It just goes into the mix. So you might lay claim to a bit of electricity that’s been produced by a renewable source, but in actual fact the electricity that you get might be generated from any source.

In a personal capacity, I actually subscribe to a similar mechanism. My home in South East London is ‘served’ by Ecotricity. This means I can ‘claim’ some bit of electricity being generated by an offshore wind farm somewhere in the UK. But given my geographic location, the likelihood is that the bit of electricity I’m actually using is generated by a waste incineration plant in Bermondsey. I’m completely ok with that. After all, it is the only thing that I can do as a consumer to feel better about the electricity that I use: I live in a flat and I’m not able to shove some solar panels on my roof.

But, it is important to understand that when I turn the lights on, charge my phone, stream from Netflix or poach an egg, burning some type of fuel is making that possible. So it is not an excuse for me to be careless with electricity, that is to waste it or to settle for energy hungry white goods. I might be ‘claiming’ electricity that was made from a renewable source, but I’m not using electricity that was made from a renewable source.

Assuming that you’re still with me, then energy certificates work in a similar way, and easily give companies a way to claim 100% renewable energy without actually doing much. But as an interesting post in Vox explains – in the US at least – it’s a complicated market which doesn’t always equate 1 certificate to 1MWh. Plus, as these certificates are very cheap to purchase, it allows many organisations to claim 200% or 300%. They simply purchase more energy certificates than the energy they use. Green Geeks – a company who are nailing SEO keywords around ‘100% renewable web hosting’- freely admit this… if you scratch under the surface.

To be clear, I’m not bashing the system. I’m just pointing out that ‘300% renewable energy’ doesn’t mean necessarily that they are ‘putting in’ 3 times more energy into the grid than they are using from solar panels on the roof and a wind farm in the car park. On its own it does not mean that less carbon is going into the atmosphere. And before I did research on this, I would have assumed that it did.

But for many companies, it’s all they have and the best that they can do. This video goes some way in explaining all the options open to large cloud hosting providers.

So what now?

So what can you do to check the environmental credentials of a hosting platform? After all, the carbon footprint of ‘the internet’ is huge. If you drove to the moon and back 62 times, you’d be producing the same amount of carbon as YouTube produces every single day.

I found this article – whilst a couple of years old – useful in summarising what the ‘big 3’ cloud platforms – that is Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure – are doing. It looks at a number of factors – energy efficiency, transparency, innovation, total renewable portfolio – to award a grade for overall greenness.

It’s interesting to see how they are financing green energy initiatives by the way of power purchase agreements. And as the article highlights, it’s not just the source of the energy but the amount of energy the hosting company uses which is important, “An algorithm trained on historical weather data, for example, knows how to tweak a data centre’s cooling system in response to the environment… The system samples various weather conditions every 5 minutes so if there’s a sudden drop in temperature, the facility knows to devote less energy to cooling the servers.”

If you drove to the moon and back 62 times, you’d be producing the same amount of carbon as YouTube produces every single day.

The transparency of these companies, I think, is also quite revealing. But not in a bad-Amazon-secretive way. As was pointed out to me by my team, Amazon is, by size, the market leader in cloud hosting by a very long margin. Therefore they have more data centres, including ones likely to be using older infrastructures in parts of the world where it’s really difficult to find a way to be carbon neutral. So they could be tight lipped about what they’re doing because they might not be able to do much about it… yet.

And then on top of that, we’ve not even considered the efficiency of the application hosted on that cloud platform. It’s an interesting point – are we actually taking into account the carbon footprint of every code we write, or API request we make? That’s for another blog post, but something that’s genuinely interesting to us.

Is there a conclusion?

In the end, the bigger cloud platforms are going to be more energy efficient than a server rack in your backroom cupboard and less energy used does equate to less carbon in the atmosphere. But as conclusions go, “host in the cloud cos it’s just better”, is a bit bollocks, isn’t it? My hope is though that these ramblings show that it can make a difference which cloud host you choose. Understanding who’s best, however, is actually not an easy process – the creds don’t always backup the claims. Seemingly, Google’s stack up pretty well at the moment. But in 5 years’ time? Let’s see what happens.

Either way, it’s a fascinating subject and something that will remain – and absolutely needs to remain – on our agendas. We all have a responsibility to make informed decisions about the carbon footprint of the Digital Transformation projects we undertake.

And so, I am very grateful to my client for asking the question in the first place! Thanks @Faymilton… guess we’ll host your site in Google Cloud, huh?!

If you’d like to challenge us with the questions, then we’re keen to bring the answers. Get in touch to book in a chat!

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