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AWS renewable energy flap gains momentum

A second environmental group mounts a campaign and shareholders ask for more facts as AWS trades public criticisms with Greenpeace.

Amazon Web Services continues to come under fire from environmental watchdogs after an open letter from customers...

last week urged Amazon to show greater transparency on renewable energy.

Shareholders led by Calvert Asset Management Company Inc. have filed a renewed resolution requesting that Amazon "issue a sustainability report describing the company's environmental, social and governance performance and goals, including greenhouse gas reduction goals" on its website by September 2015.  This resolution will be voted on by shareholders at the company's annual meeting June 10; a similar resolution, also led by Calvert, was floated and failed in 2011.

Environmental group Green America is also mounting an online marketing campaign dubbed "Build a Cleaner Cloud" that specifically targets Amazon Web Services (AWS). Green America wants to push AWS to use clean energy sources for its servers by 2020.

"In its focus on climate change and low-carbon energy use, Amazon lags behind most companies - including Apple, Google, and Facebook -- that operate large-scale data centers," according to Green America's press release this week. "Amazon is one of the few Fortune 500 companies that fails to produce an annual sustainability report and does not report out to the Carbon Disclosure Project."

Late last week, AWS officials issued an emailed statement in response to a letter from customers including Hootsuite, Tumblr and Upworthy that urged Amazon to issue more information on its renewable energy sourcing practices.

"AWS customers have already shown environmental leadership by moving to cloud computing, which is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional computing," according to the statement.

AWS spars with Greenpeace over renewable energy

The growing chorus of Amazon's environmental detractors began with Greenpeace, which has dogged Amazon for its lack of transparency on energy consumption since 2011.

Amazon also offered a public response last week to a May 2015 report by Greenpeace USA that gave AWS mostly failing grades, saying the report does not properly weigh server utilization and data center efficiency when assessing companies' commitments to going carbon-neutral.

"It's pretty unusual for an environmental report to not feature energy conservation as a primary evaluation criteria," read a blog post on the company's official website published last week. "It seems … that any analysis of the climate impact of a data center should take into consideration resource utilization and energy efficiency, in addition to power mix."

Amazon claims that on average, its customers use 77% fewer servers, 84% less power, and use a 28% cleaner power mix, for a total reduction in carbon emissions of 88% from using the AWS cloud instead of operating their own data centers.

The Greenpeace "Clicking Clean" report does include "Energy Efficiency and Mitigation" as one of the four main criteria on which it judges hyper-scale Web companies and colocation facilities. Amazon was given a 'D' in this category in the report.

While the Greenpeace report acknowledges that larger data centers tend to be significantly more efficient than smaller ones, it goes on to say that "the shift by consumers to smartphones and tablets that depend on constant access to the cloud will increase the overall energy required to deliver these services, outweighing any efficiency gains realized by shifting to the cloud."

Amazon's lack of transparency about the way it sources renewable energy leaves room for doubts about the AWS commitment to run on 100% renewable energy in coming years and 40% renewable energy by the end of 2016, according to Gary Cook, senior IT analyst at Greenpeace, who was the lead author of the "Clicking Clean" report.

"Utilization is definitely important, but we're also looking at how a company is trying to demonstrate energy efficiency," Cook said. "Are they reporting data?"

Companies including  Rackspace and IBM have disclosed baseline data on annual energy consumption, energy mix, and greenhouse gas emissions, including location-specific information for all significant facilities. Amazon has refused to provide "even the most basic information on their energy and carbon footprint," according to the report. 

Lingering questions on AWS renewable energy

Without more information, it's unclear, for example, how AWS can claim its EU (Frankfurt) region is carbon-neutral, Cook said.

"What we've heard from customers in the Frankfurt region is that [Amazon is] not actually buying or contracting with renewable energy developers, they're actually just buying renewable energy credits," Cook said, adding that Amazon does have options in Germany to buy power directly from a renewable energy supplier.

"We'd love to be able to say that they're on the right path there too," Cook said.

Amazon's newest American data center, under construction in Ohio, is also worrisome from an environmental perspective, according to Cook.

Amazon plans to build a wind farm project in Indiana, and while not explicitly tied to the Ohio data center, Greenpeace hopes wind power will be used there, Cook said.

Even if that's the case, however, Greenpeace has gleaned from land sale records and other sources of publicly-available data that Amazon's data center project in Ohio includes three data center complexes, each with four to five data centers inside, and estimates that wind power from Indiana will only cover one-eighth of the needs of the new site.

Amazon may well be planning more renewable energy sources for the Ohio region, but specific plans remain unknown, Cook said. Meanwhile, the company's fast-growing U.S.-East region, based in Virginia, still relies heavily on coal power.

"It's an example of why transparency is important, not just to us, but to customers who want to know that the wind project wasn't a one-off thing," Cook said. "They want to see that [Amazon is] going to be scaling renewables to keep pace with their growth."

*Amazon added solar power to the mix this week through a contract with Community Energy, Inc. on the construction and operation of an 80 megawatt solar farm in Accomack County, Virginia, called Amazon Solar Farm U.S. East. It is expected to generate 170,000 megawatt hours of power annually by October 2016 and will be used to power both current and future data centers in the central and eastern U.S.

Amazon did not comment for this story beyond its previously issued statement and blog post as of press time.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

*Update added following initial publication.

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What are your thoughts on Amazon's lack of transparency about the way it sources renewable energy?
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The biggest challenge with renewables of any stripe is their ability to be available to power a system 24/7. Solar needs sun, wind power needs wind. When the two are scarce, another means of storing generated power or having a backup supply has to be available. Combustion may be dirty, but it is reliable. Until renewables can match or surpass the efficiencies combustion provides, it will be there and it will be used heavily.
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