Look at Clouds from Both Sides Now

Scott McGibbon is Project Specialist at the Lear Center.

As so much of our lives – medical charts, business enterprises, financial records, personal photos and videos – moves “up there,” it seems like a good time to take a clear-eyed view of “the cloud.”

A new report from Greenpeace, How Clean Is Your Cloud, claims that much of the online infrastructure known as “the cloud” relies on coal or nuclear power and that many “cloud” facilities are moving from Silicon Valley to areas of the country like North Carolina, Virginia and northeastern Illinois where energy prices are much lower.

What additionally shocking details does the report offer?

  • The electricity consumption of data centers may be as much as 70% higher than previously predicted.
  • The combined electricity demand of the internet/cloud (data centers and telecommunications network) globally in 2007 was 623 billion kilowatt hours. If the cloud were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand in the world.
  • Based on current projections, the demand for electricity will more than triple to 1,973bn kWh, an amount greater than the combined total demands of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil.
  • By 2008, “the cloud” was already responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gasses.

We tend to forget that “the cloud” consists of millions of web servers built from metals and silicon and plastics which are bolted into steel racks which are themselves firmly bolted to steel floors, all inside huge, secure industrial buildings and kept from overheating by massive cooling systems. Not a cloud or “the cloud” in sight.

Does it matter what it’s called? Only so far as we do not deceive ourselves with a false metaphor about what our relentless use of it really demands in terms of materials, power, underpaid human labor and political battles over mining rights. What if we each made a decision not to take this data ecosystem for granted? What if we chose to treat it as a precious resource? Why not be 10% more judicious about using it? Ration your uploads of pictures of food you’re about to ingest; only post videos edited to feature just the best moments. How about the five freshest pictures from the party instead of all 47? You’d be doing the environment (and all your followers) a favor.

(Got a better idea of a name for “the cloud?” Tweet @learcenter with your idea!)

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