From Fog to Smog – The Hidden Costs of the Cloud

Google's journey in designing and implementing sustainable data centers

Would you believe that the average internet user pollutes the atmosphere?

An average Google user – someone who does 25 searches and watches 60 minutes of YouTube a day with a Gmail account and other services – emits about 8 grams of CO2 per day. [1] The oddity is, watching an episode of Netflix, reading the New York Times online, and downloading apps are not obvious ways to pollute the atmosphere. But collectively, our growing demand for cloud services means that the data centers that power them are currently responsible for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. [2] That amount is on par with the aviation industry!

Our huge appetite for data is fueling the growth of companies like Google, which are spending billions of dollars on data centers every year. Last year in the U.S. alone for example, data centers used 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, equating to 97 million metric tons of CO2. [3] This order of magnitude is why investment and innovation in improving data centers for the environment is so important.

Google’s thought leadership in data center strategy

There are two primary pillars within Google’s green data center strategy. The first is to make the data centers themselves run more efficiently, and the second is to fund sustainable sources of energy to power the data centers.

#1 Efficiency: Google’s data centers are some of the most efficient in the world. The standard industry metric to measure data center efficiency is the power usage effectiveness (PUE) which is a measure of how much extra power is required to provide each unit of computational power. Google boasts a PUE of 1.12 vs an industry average of 1.7 and has continuously improved on this key metric since 2008. [4]

Google has achieved this improvement with several innovations over time:

  • Server design: eliminate energy waste at the power supply and ensure the maximum power goes to the components that do the actual computing work.
  • Temperature control: use advanced cooling strategies such as hot aisle isolation, economizers, and liquid cooling which require less energy; invest in power management software that run analytics on hardware utilization to predict cooling needs.
  • Recycling: since 2007, Google has remanufactured and repurposed enough outdated servers to avoid buying over 300,000 new replacement machines. [5]

#2 Sustainability: The second pillar of Google’s data center strategy is to promote the development of clean energy projects by purchasing sustainable energy from local providers near its data centers. Google enters into long term power purchase agreements (PPAs) with providers to encourage creation of new wind and solar farms. By providing developers with a long term buying commitment, Google is essentially financing clean energy projects around the world.

Google’s innovative data center strategy combined with its continued purchasing of carbon offsets has enabled it to reach a 0 emission footprint. But of course Google’s has higher ambitions and is hungry to do even more in the future. Google is aiming for 100% renewable power and has committed to invest nearly $2.5 billion in renewable energy projects, which produce enough electricity to power over 1 million US homes. [6]

The Future is in the Clouds

Google has a portfolio of products and resources that uniquely enables it to reduce emissions in creative ways. Google should take on the responsibility to identify existing and new products that can result in net energy savings.

For example, a quick win with an existing product involves converting more small businesses that use locally-hosted email to use Gmail. Studies have shown that there are significant savings (172.8 kWh of energy and 101.6 kg of carbon per user per year) for small businesses with less than 50 people if they use Gmail instead of locally-hosted email. [7] Google has the scale and resources to push such products and educate potential customers about the corresponding environmental benefits.

New products and innovations that reduce emissions are also on the horizon for Google. Experiments with using DeepMind artificial intelligence algorithms to optimize the hundreds of variables within data centers has shown promising early results of reducing energy consumption by 40%. Google’s DeepMind technology could even have potential use cases beyond data centers, such as improving power plant conversion efficiency, reducing semiconductor manufacturing energy and water usage, or helping manufacturing facilities increase throughput. [8]

Google should undoubtedly be proud of its achievements in developing environmentally friendly data center operations. For a company with such a strong voice in the industry and an incredibly large arsenal of resources, Google must continue its leadership to close the carbon gap and open cloud computing’s potential to a new and cleaner era.

Word count: 765


[1] Google Green, “A better web. Better for the environment.,”, accessed November 2016

[2] Adam Vaughan, “How viral cat videos are warming the planet,” The Guardian, September 25, 2015,, accessed November 2016

[3] Reuban Yonatan, “The Incredible Environmental Impact of Cloud Technology,” GetVoIP, January 19, 2015,, accessed November 2016

[4] Google Data Centers, “Efficiency, how we do it,”, accessed November 2016

[5] Google Data Centers, “Efficiency, how we do it,”, accessed November 2016

[6] Google Data Centers, “Renewable Energy,”, accessed November 2016

[7] Google Green, “Products,”, accessed November 2016

[8] James Vincent, “Google uses DeepMind AI to cut data center energy bills,” The Verge, July 21, 2016,, accessed November 2016


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Student comments on From Fog to Smog – The Hidden Costs of the Cloud

  1. This is absolutely fascinating! I never thought about the environmental implications of increasing demand for data (beyond the additional electricity consumed to continuously power all of our gadgets). You raised a really good point around Google indirectly financing clean energy projects by committing to a long-term purchasing contract. I would like to see more companies, not just in tech, follow suit because it positions large companies who have sufficient capital to be the leaders of change and promoting a virtuous cycle of sustainability.

    Given Google’s influential role in so many aspects of our lives, I wonder if Google has a corporate responsibility to work with the government to help implement their findings into industries. If DeepMind AI can reduce energy consumption by 40% in data centers, should the government get involved in regulating usage of AI or leave it to free markets to decide?

    One thing your post made me think about is whether or not for-profit companies like Google can really say they’re prioritizing environmental sustainability. If we look at Google / Alphabet’s initiatives outside of just improving data center energy consumption, they clearly have a lot of projects, such as self-driving cars and electric planes, that are promoting environmental sustainability in the long-term. However, do you think they are working on these projects because Alphabet truly believes that these technological innovations will help reduce long-term human impact on the earth or is it just a way for them to generate revenue? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they collaborated with competitors and organizations instead of competed to be first-to-market?

    1. Google has a history of open sourcing technologies that it believes will be most beneficial for the best minds to collaborate on and I hope it will do the same for the DeepMind AI technology, especially since the potential applications are so far reaching beyond data center efficiency.

      I believe that Alphabet’s other venture bets in self-driving cars, electric planes, Project Loon, etc. that have environment benefits are also very calculated long-term commercial bets. Google is lucky to have very high operating margins that allows it the luxury to invest in these kinds of venture bets without needing them to generate immediate cash flows. I do think Alphabet truly believes that these technological innovations will help promote long-term sustainability, and are probably sacrificing higher ROI near-term projects to allocate resourcing for these venture bets.

      With Google’s extensive experience in sustainable operations for a internet technology company, I agree that there is a great opportunity for Google to work with governments in thinking about regulations for the industry. Google is already lobbying heavily for cybersecurity and other policy issues directly related to its core business and it would be a great extension of its capabilities to have a more formal voice in sustainability issues as well.

  2. Thanks for writing this post! You hit the nail on the head with your comments about data center energy usage. I think that’s a little-known fact about the technology industry, which everyone assumes to have basically zero overhead. I’m glad that you brought up the potential for using AI to improve the efficiency of operations, because I think that’s an underrated area of potential for tech companies like Google/Alphabet. We’ve already seen with the launch of Nest (despite its limited commercial success) the power of using technology to regulate energy usage in the home or workplace. Savvy consumers are saving a ton of energy cost (and therefore limiting emissions) by allowing technology to automatically regulate temperature. I would like to see greater investment in this space because I think it could be a huge revenue driver for the company if energy regulations get tighter.

    1. I agree that given its household brand recognition, Google has a lot of potential to develop consumer products like Nest that would encourage consumers to adopt more energy efficient lifestyles. Beyond Nest, Google has also tried to build a smart grid product called PowerMeter, which was a free web tool that allowed consumers to track their home’s energy usage. Unfortunately, the product never took off because consumers lacked the knowledge that there is an energy management problem in the first place. As consumers become more wary of energy consumption and as utility companies are more amenable to mutually beneficial partnerships, the chances of a smart grid product being successful could be a lot higher if Google gives it another shot. So despite these lackluster product performances, I do hope that Google will invest more in energy management products, especially since Google Home would serve as the perfect centerpiece.

  3. Wow, great read, Georgia! I think you are shining light on an issue that is never talked about. I agree with Jay, typically we think of technology as zero-emiison industry. You are doing a nice job breaking out the scale of the impact of increasing number of servers. As cloud storage commodities even further and becomes the norm (and as the world consumes more information), we need big players, like Google and Apple to actively participate in the conversation on climate change at more visible level and take a lead on more impactful initiatives globally.

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