How green is your cloud?

The public clouds run by Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft all claim a commitment to green energy -- but the clear leader in this field may surprise you

How green is your cloud?

With the recent climate talks in Paris, energy consumption is a pressing topic. Unsurprisingly, cloud vendors have touted their infrastructure at scale as a way to reduce IT's carbon footprint due to the efficiencies gained from running such huge deployments.

That doesn't change the reality that data centers remain a large source of carbon emissions through their intense energy and cooling requirements. So when it comes to energy usage and renewables, how do the cloud providers stack up?

Amazon Web Services

AWS has committed to 100 percent renewable energy, but has not offered a date by when it plans to achieve that. As of December 2015, the energy mix across AWS is 25 percent renewable with a plan to reach 40 percent by the end of 2016. This will come from some newly announced generation facilities: wind farms in Fowler Ridge (online in Jan 2016), U.S. East (Dec 2016), and U.S. West (May 2017) -- plus a solar facility in the U.S. East due online in October 2016.

Amazon participates in a number of programs, including Buyer's Principles to help increase purchasing power for low-carbon energy sources (which also includes Microsoft and Google) and the American Council on Renewable Energy.

If you want to be green on AWS now, you have two public regions to choose from that are 100 percent carbon neutral: U.S. West (Oregon) and Frankfurt. AWS's GovCloud region is also carbon neutral.

Google Cloud Platform

Google has been carbon neutral since 2007 and now sources its energy from 37 percent renewables, following announcements this month to buy another 842 megawatts of renewable energy. It plans to triple its renewable energy purchases by 2025 on the road to 100 percent renewables (also, no date).

Google purchases green energy directly from on-site renewable facilities but also uses power purchase agreements to pipe renewable energy into the public grid, which it then consumes. It also has a $2.5 billion fund for investment into renewable energy projects and companies.


IBM has pledged support of the American Business Act on Climate, but offers limited information about what it actually achieves, at least compared to the relatively detailed stats provided by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. IBM has pledged to be using 20 percent renewables by 2020 and reduce energy consumption by 35 percent by 2020 (against 2005 as the base year, adjusted for acquisitions and divestitures). It offers only a basic figure of 14 percent renewable electricity in 2014, with an additional 5 percent of energy consumed from the general power grid from renewables.

In a statement, IBM explained that three of its SoftLayer data centers (one in Houston and two in Dallas) use 100 percent wind energy and that the company has been increasing its renewable energy usage since 2001. Given that it has only reached 14 percent in 15 years, this is quite slow progress. It fits with IBM's commitment to adopt renewables "where it makes business sense" as opposed to pushing for improvements in green energy efficiency and investing to help improve technologies (and hence drive down prices) in the same way its competitors are doing.

IBM has a detailed environmental report (the latest version is from 2014) that goes into detail about its various renewables projects, programs, and investments (e.g., wind and biomass in Ireland, plus on-site solar in Zurich, New Delhi, and Massachusetts) but it's difficult to separate the actual detail in relation to SoftLayer and IBM Cloud. IBM specifically states that the majority of its data centers are 10 to 30 years old and improving efficiency requires "thoughtful planning."

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft does not have a fancy Web page that touts its green efforts, instead publishing an annual Citizenship Report to deliver the stats. This report states that Microsoft has been carbon neutral since July 1, 2012, including all of its offices, business flights, and data center operations. According to the 2015 report, this is achieved through 91 percent renewables (the majority is wind, but also biomass, hydro, landfill gas, and on-site solar) compared to 47 percent renewables in 2014.

Microsoft's report goes into significant detail about emissions, including breakdowns of where emissions are coming from as well as other areas of interest around environmental sustainability, such as water use and responsible sourcing.

Microsoft was also among 13 companies pledging action with the U.S. government on climate change this summer.

Cloud carbon footprints compared


Carbon neutral?

Power from renewables

100 percent renewable commitment


No (but 2 AWS regions are)

25 percent now, 40 percent by end 2016

Yes, but no date


Yes (2007)

37 percent

Yes, but no date



14 percent but unclear if this is IBM Cloud/Softlayer



Yes (2012)

91 percent

Yes, but no date

Going green in the cloud

The big three -- Amazon, Google and Microsoft -- have all committed to 100 percent renewables and are on their way towards that. Microsoft is almost there (91 percent) as of 2015, with Amazon in third place (25 percent), although with significant investments due to come online over the next year.

IBM/Softlayer is the disappointment here. The company has a large legacy footprint to deal with and really only entered the cloud game with its acquisition of SoftLayer, but a commitment to 20 percent renewables by 2020 seems lackluster nonetheless.

Although Apple is not a public cloud provider, the company is worth a mention, because all of its data centers are powered by 100 percent locally generated renewables -- and cloud services like iCloud and iTunes are covered.

There are many advantages to moving to a public cloud provider, but few customers factor in providers' investments in green facilities. They should. Just as you can benefit from price drops without doing anything, by moving workloads to the public cloud, you can enjoy efficiency and environmental improvements as part of the deal. If you're on the fence about which provider to choose, consider the commitment to green energy.  

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.