How can our online world help our offline world become cleaner? It's a question often at the forefront of Andrew Hatton's mind. Hatton heads up IT for Greenpeace UK, a role that sees him juggling management of the organization’s internal digital infrastructure with working alongside his colleagues on a number of green IT campaign issues related to sustainability, most notably around the Internet and cloud computing.
As Hatton gears up to speak about Greenpeace's #ClickClean campaign at SB ‘14 London next month, he is acutely aware of how the rapid growth of Internet use and cloud technology is fuelling demand for one offline product: electricity. According to Greenpeace's Clicking Green report released earlier this year, our reliance on digital platforms has produced a collective electricity demand that would rank in the top six if compared alongside countries. What's more, that demand is expected to increase by 60 percent or more by 2020.
"The challenge at the moment in green IT is an energy challenge," Hatton reflects. "The cloud is growing at a phenomenal rate as more of the world's population is coming online. Also more of what happens in the offline world is moving online."
"These are like data centers we've never seen before," Hatton observes. He compares them to vast warehouses of data that require enormous energy inputs. "The key challenge is to make sure that those data centers are powered in a sustainable way and are efficient as they can be. That is something that the industry as a whole has struggled with for many years."
As many of these data warehouses being built represent long-term investment cycles, Hatton says it is crucial that requirements around location and site are considered carefully. "Data center sourcing strategies are absolutely key - it's the number one thing," he emphasizes. "Where you choose to site your data center determines to some extent what energy mix you can use. If the center is sited somewhere where the energy supplier is wedded to coal, then that's a problem."
Asked how those companies with large data center footprints are generally faring when it comes to delivering on clean energy usage and efficiency, Hatton says that positive progress is being made – especially among the brand leaders – but transparency remains an issue. Greenpeace regularly publishes reports ranking providers against different criteria, but getting hold of such information can prove problematic in some cases.
"Transparency is getting better, but there are some laggards … there are some big names you would expect more from," he says.
Just last week, Facebook came under fire for reportedly refusing to disclose carbon emissions data to CDP, along with other big names including Amazon. With Greenpeace, the success of each campaign is measured by seeing positive change take place — when targeted brands listen to the weight of public opinion and change their approach or policies accordingly.
"Brands do listen, to their credit," Hatton observes. "If you had asked me two years ago about how I was feeling about our #ClickClean campaign, I'd have been quite glum, but we've had an enormous amount of success over the past 18 months — we've seen some major announcements from key players and brands. It's almost becoming the new normal, to build data in a sustainable way."
So, how has all of this campaigning work impacted Greenpeace's own approach to cloud computing?
"That's a really good question," Hatton replies. "We try and practice what we preach — it's important to us. At the same time it can be a challenging area to get a grip on. We have prioritized our own direct investments into renewables. For example, when it comes to procurement of new cloud services, we prioritize those providers who can deliver those services in a sustainable way."
He acknowledges there is still a procurement challenge in terms of getting robust supplier data around energy sourcing and mix.
"It still remains a bigger challenge than it should be, but it is getting easier. Maybe four years ago you were the only customer asking the question, now you're not. Some of the challenges are further upstream … but I would say, be persistent. Suppliers can normally come up with the information and answers when they want your business."
Looking ahead, Hatton sees no slowdown in data growth for at least another decade. This rate of expansion only further underlines the need for cloud companies and Internet-based providers to publicly reaffirm their commitments to sourcing clean energy.
"There's going to be more and more data flying through the air, and data centers are going to get bigger. To meet that demand in a sustainable way … it's got to become business as usual, otherwise there is going to be real trouble.”