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Amazon renewable energy sources questioned

Amazon says 40% of the power used by its global infrastructure will come from renewable energy sources by the end of 2016, but customers want details.

There are advantages and incentives available to companies that commit to renewable energy, but AWS customers won't reap those rewards unless the cloud provider fully discloses its plans for sustainability.

That was the message in an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal, where 19 companies asked for more details about Amazon renewable energy initiatives, as well as in conversations with IT pros about how Amazon Web Services (AWS) should respond.

Broadly speaking, customers and AWS partners that had not participated in the open letter see its merits.

"Amazon, ultimately, will have to be more transparent about their environmental impact," said Daniel Heacock, a consultant with c3/consulting, an IT consulting and managed services firm based in Nashville, Tenn. "They are accountable to their customers and shareholders, who have an increasing awareness of environmental needs."

There are incentives, from tax breaks to marketing advantages to service cost reductions, that have firms increasingly seeing green when it comes to energy, but "if you are an Amazon customer, these can be difficult to certify if you don't have specifics available to you," said Kris Bliesner, CTO for 2nd Watch, Inc., an AWS Premier Partner based in Liberty Lake, Wash.

Approximately 25% of the power consumed by AWS' global infrastructure comes from renewable energy sources, and says its goal is to reach 40% by the end of 2016. A footnote on its site defines renewable energy as "electric power generated from naturally replenished resources, which are delivered into the electrical grids that supply our data centers." Amazon uses such energy from a wind farm in Indiana.

It would be good of [Amazon] to come public with some of their plans in [the renewable energy] space.
Kris BliesnerCTO, 2nd Watch

However, the writers of this week's open letter want more specifics, calling on Amazon to publish information describing its energy and carbon footprints, as major AWS customer Netflix has, as well as measured progress toward Amazon renewable energy goals.

Ultimately, the large customers including Hootsuite, Tumblr and Upworthy who signed the letter want AWS to provide more clarity on the renewable options it will offer moving forward so they can have confidence in the integrity of an Amazon renewable energy commitment.

Cloud market cleans up its act

Other cloud providers have incorporated more renewable energy resources as a percentage of their overall deployments, according to public disclosures. Rackspace, for example, already sources 35% of its energy from renewable resources, and has been more forthcoming, offering data-center-level power consumption statistics through Greenpeace's "Clicking Clean" reports. Google is also held up as a model of transparency on the subject in the Greenpeace reports, and uses renewable energy to power 35% of its operations.

Amazon's lack of response so far gives the impression that its renewable energy picture might not be pretty, according to Heacock.

"That being said, I think there is an argument to be made that centralization of infrastructure from a broad perspective is not only efficient economically but also environmentally," he said.

This is also a point Amazon officials have publicly argued; the closest thing available to an Amazon rebuttal of the Greenpeace reports, which have called AWS out for its reticence since 2011, is a 2014 blog post by distinguished engineer James Hamilton. The post states that Greenpeace has focused on the wrong factors, and that high server utilization in the Amazon cloud makes it energy efficient.

"The greenest power is that which is not consumed and yet resource utilization is not one of the four main focus areas of the [Greenpeace] report," Hamilton wrote.

AWS partners such as Bliesner expect the issue to reach "critical mass" and force Amazon's hand.

Still, "Amazon is an environmentally thoughtful company and I know they are working diligently to look for renewable energy sources like wind power -- it would be good of them to come public with some of their plans in this space," Bliesner said.

Other customers wonder if the company might be legitimately trying to protect business secrets by avoiding more detailed Amazon renewable energy disclosures, pointing out that the company is under no legal obligation to offer more detail.

"By not telling us stuff, they retain the right to change things without worrying that people have built in dependencies on specifics," said Brian Tarbox, lead engineer for a startup based in the Northeast and a contributor to SearchAWS. "Given that they keep giving us better services while reducing the prices I say, 'Carry on.'"

While it's not required, "it might be nice to disclose how green they are," Tarbox added.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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