The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species. Tasked with creating and then catering to the world’s insatiable appetite for messages, photos, and streaming video, along with critical systems supporting our financial, transportation, and communication infrastructures, the internet serves as the central nervous system of the modern global economy.
Not surprisingly, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to manufacture and power our devices, data centers, and related infrastructural needs. The energy footprint of the IT sector is already estimated to consume approximately 7% of global electricity. With an anticipated threefold increase in global internet traffic by 2020, the internet's energy footprint is expected to rise further, fueled both by our individual consumption of data and by the spread of the digital age to more of the world's population, from 3 billion to over 4 billion globally.
How we build and power our quickly growing global digital infrastructure is rapidly becoming central to the question of whether we will be able to transition to renewable energy in time to avoid dangerous climate change. If data centers and other digital infrastructure are 100% renewably powered, our increasing reliance on the internet can actually accelerate our transition to a renewably powered economy. But, if our growing digital infrastructure is built in the opposite direction, locking us into a dramatic increase in the demand for electricity from coal and other dirty sources of energy that are changing our planet's climate, it will be far more costly and take an unnecessarily longer time to reach a renewably powered economy.
In light of the sector's pivotal role, Greenpeace began benchmarking the energy performance of the IT sector in 2009, challenging those companies who are the largest global architects and operators of the internet to commit to powering their rapid growth with 100% renewable energy. Ultimately, the largest players will be deciding whether our entire digital footprint is powered with renewable energy or antiquated fossil fuels.
Thankfully we actually are seeing a significant increase in the prioritization of renewables among some of the largest internet companies. The race to build a renewably powered internet started with digital platform leaders such as Facebook, Apple, and Google who first made 100% renewable commitments four years ago and have now been joined by nearly 20 internet companies, including global cloud and colocation companies who had previously been lagging far behind. Companies entering the race to build a renewably powered internet are motivated by:
- Customers who have carbon or renewable energy goals demanding that their digital infrastructure is powered by clean sources of electricity;
- The rising cost competitiveness of renewable energy, with long-term contracts increasingly at cost parity or even beating fossil fuels in many markets, while also providing long-term price security.
- Competitiveness among IT companies and the linkage of brand identity with a renewable supply of energy, given the growing concern on climate change among employees and customers.
Report by Greenpeace