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Originally published Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 4:04 PM

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Amazon, Microsoft: Let's keep 'the cloud' clean

Amazon, Microsoft and other leaders of the information-technology industry must embrace clean energy to power their cloud-based data centers, writes Greenpeace USA's executive director, Phil Radford.

Special to The Times

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EVERY day, we put another piece of our lives on "the cloud." At some point today, you probably will tweet, share a photo with your friends on Facebook, download a song to Apple's iTunes, or buy a book on Amazon. The cloud is becoming an integral part of how we live, as each of those companies is keen to remind us.

But have you ever stopped to wonder where these bits of information are stored? The "cloud" is a clever bit of marketing, but your data doesn't live in the sky. Cloud-based computing companies operate massive data centers the size of many football fields, filled to the brim with row upon row of computers.

The amount of electricity required to power these data centers is vast and growing. Right now, the combined electricity demand of the cloud, if compared to countries, would be that of the fifth-largest country in the world, and that hunger for electricity is expected to double or triple by 2020.

This rapidly growing energy demand can mean one of two things for the world:

• If tech companies grow with an eye toward powering with clean renewable energy, the cloud has the potential to transform both the tech sector and our entire economy, blazing the trail to a renewable energy future.

• If tech companies grow with an eye to the lowest-cost energy, regardless of the source, the cloud will rapidly increase coal pollution in our communities, give our kids asthma and fuel climate change.

Unfortunately, two companies based here — Amazon and Microsoft — have not yet committed to powering their growing clouds with renewable energy, and are choosing coal and nuclear power instead.

Seattle is known for its leadership in understanding that a clean environment is critical to having a strong economy. The information-technology companies based here have benefited from access to clean sources of electricity, and hometown giants like Amazon and Microsoft should carry that commitment with them as they expand their massive data-center infrastructure outside the region.

Others in the sector are showing leadership. Yahoo and Google are already embracing the challenge to deliver a truly green cloud, making smart choices on location and making real investments in renewable sources of electricity.

But far away from Seattle, Amazon and Microsoft are unfortunately operating big pieces of their cloud by powering them with dirty energy in places like Virginia, which has less than 4 percent renewable electricity and is heavily dependent on coal from environmentally destructive mountaintop-removal mining.

Microsoft just proudly announced a new data center in Wyoming where, unless it shows leadership as Google has elsewhere to buy large amounts of nearby wind energy, its data center will mostly be fueled by coal.

Greenpeace loves the Internet and we love the cloud. We couldn't do our jobs without this incredible technology. We just want it to be a whole lot cleaner, so that our 21st-century communications can be powered by 21st-century energy sources, not 19th-century coal.

Amazon and Microsoft should continue Seattle's tradition of innovation and leadership in the tech sector, and join the companies that have developed policies to ensure that as their clouds grow, they grow cleaner too.

Phil Radford is executive director of Greenpeace USA. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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