Intelligent Energy

Letter to Ballmer, Bezos, Cook: Go to Iceland

Letter to Ballmer, Bezos, Cook: Go to Iceland

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Greenpeace calls Microsoft, Amazon, Apple data centers environmental laggards. Mark Halper urges their CEOs to help us become eco-friendly Net junkies by locating servers on the N. Atlantic island.

A billboard at Iceland's Keflavik airport advertising the country's geothermal energy, from utility Landsvirkjun. Photo by Mark Halper.

Dear Steve Ballmer, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook,

As CEOs of Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, you're probably aware that the environmental group Greenpeace this week branded each of your companies as laggards at improving the environmental friendliness of your data centers. It has launched a public campaign to pressure you into improvements.

Greenpeace takes issue with the way you power the data centers that drive your cloud computing operations. It says that compared to other big IT companies like Facebook, Google and Yahoo, you use too much coal and nuclear, and not enough "renewable" power.

"Three of the largest IT companies building their business around the cloud - Amazon, Apple and Microsoft - are all rapidly expanding without adequate regard to source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds," Greenpeace says in its report - How Clean is Your Cloud?.

Greenpeace is also underwhelmed by your efforts in what it calls energy transparency, infrastructure citing, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation and renewable advocacy.

The controls inside a Landsvirkjun hydro plant in Iceland. This stuff is cheap, easy and clean. A lot of Iceland's hydro comes from melting glaciers, which won't last forever, so Iceland is increasing the geothermal share of its 100% "renewable" electricity. Photo by Mark Halper.

It actually grades IBM, Oracle and Salesforce as worse than the three of you on its list of 14 IT giants. But it singles out your companies, probably because you directly face billions of daily computer and gadget users who dip into your data centers blissfully or intentionally unaware that each time they do so they are drawing some fraction of a joule of energy that has to come from some electricity source with a certain environmental consequence. In a press release accompanying its new report, Greenpeace notes that "if the cloud were a country, its electricity demand would currently rank fifth in the world."

Steve, Jeff and Tim, your companies have helped hooked us on the opiate of cloud computing. We're all Internet addicts who are spewing CO2 every time we snort the cocaine of online commerce, inhale the marijuana of iTunes, inject the heroin of web browsing, and drink the alcohol of photo sharing.

So, now that you have us, help us support our habit in an eco-friendly way.

I know that your efforts are not as careless as Greenpeace suggests. For instance, Tim, my SmartPlanet colleague Kirsten Korosec has been reporting on Apple's solar-powered data initiatives.

Iceland: Fresh air, clean energy, open spaces, great scenery. Could use a few more trees. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurosson, Arcticimages.com

And I'm a little less concerned than Greenpeace seems to be regarding your nuclear predelictions. Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe nuclear could have a safe future, especially if it shifts to alternatives like thorium. Steve, your chairman, Mr. Gates, has an impressive alternative nuclear initiative called TerraPower. Jeff, you've invested in Canadian nuclear fusion startup General Fusion. Smart move.

But allow me to make a suggestion: Take your data to Iceland. Yes, Iceland. As I've written before here on SmartPlanet and in other publications including Time magazine, the North Atlantic island is a perfect place to "go green."

Iceland runs entirely on renewable electricity - 75 percent from hydro, and the rest from geothermal. There's not a coal plant in sight. The same geological forces that set off the country's volcanoes also help generate electricity. As the billboard for Icleandic power company Landsvirkjun notes, "Who needs coal, when you have fire?"

Iceland also offers a natural advantage to a data center: It all but eliminates the need to run power-hungry cooling systems, because a year-round climate that averages between 32 degrees and 56 degrees F (despite its name, Iceland does not have a freezing climate, even in the winter) takes care of that job. And chillers can typically account for well over half of the power consumed by a data center.

Want another reason? Icelandic utilities are offering very competitive prices, and are willing to lock in rates for up to 20 years - unheard of in a world of volatile fossil fuel energy prices. It has good high-speed fiber connections to Europe and North America, which are set to get even better when League City, Texas-based Emerald Atlantis completes a new subsea line as soon as this year.

That's why London-based data center hosting company Verne Global recently fired up operations in a converted NATO munitions storehouse outside Reykjavik. IBM has long been rumored as a prospective tenant there.

Steve, Jeff, and Tim, I've got to believe that Iceland is on you radar. Steve, Microsoft has been popping up in the rumor mill as interested in Iceland. Jeff, one of Amazon's cloud computing parnters, Jersey City-based Datapipe, recently set up shop there. How about you?

And while you're there, enjoy the place. The fiery island where Jules Verne sent his explorers down to the center of the earth (from inside a volcano) is a remarkable place full of highly educated people, stunning scenery, geothermal pools in which you can swim year round, and great, great food. As a bonus, it's one of the world's oldest democracies.

Okay, so it could use a few more trees. The Vikings chopped them down a long time ago, in a bit of an environmental catastrophe. Steve, Jeff and Tim, you can help avert another one: Go green in Iceland.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Halper, Freelance journalist, SmartPlanet contributing editor, Bristol, England.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure