Don’t forget – where your cloud apps are hosted helps determine their carbon footprint


Back in July of this year (2011), the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), in conjunction with Verdantix, released a report titled Cloud Computing – The IT Solution for the 21st Century [PDF warning] which erroneously claims Cloud Computing is Green. Shortly after it was released, I wrote a long post outlining exactly where the report was flawed. I also contacted the CDP directly outlining my concerns to them and pointing them to the blog post.

Then, a couple of weeks back, when preparing my slides for my Cloud Computing’s Green Potential talk for the Cepis and Hepis Green IT conference in Athens, I discovered that Verdantix and the CDP had published

a new report [PDF] on the business and environmental benefits of cloud computing in France and the UK

Unfortunately, not only does the new report make the same mistakes as the original one, but it further compounds those errors with an even more fundamental one.

Let me explain.

In the key assumptions section of the report it talks about the metric tons of CO2/kWh in both the UK and French electricity grids (0.000521 tonnes and 0.000088 tonnes respectively). It uses these figures to extrapolate the savings in both France and the UK for companies migrating their applications to cloud computing.

So? You say. Sounds reasonable to me.

Well, the issue is that they didn’t do any work to identify where applications migrated to the cloud would be hosted. The implication being that UK applications migrated to the cloud, will be hosted on UK cloud infrastructure and French IT applications will be migrated to French hosted cloud infrastructure. In fact this would be a highly unusual scenario.

A quick look at where most cloud hosting takes place shows that the vast majority of it is occurring in the US, with quite a lot happening in Singapore with a lesser amount in Europe (and that split between Ireland, Germany, UK, etc. but almost none in France – Ireland is underestimated in the list as it doesn’t include Microsoft which has a significant Cloud hosting facility in Dublin which it is now expanding or Google’s Dublin facility).

Ok, and what about the carbon intensity of electricity generation in these countries? If a cloud application is moved to somewhere with a lower carbon intensity for electricity generation, then there is a possibility of a carbon saving. However, with the vast majority of cloud hosting still being done in the US, that isn’t a likely scenario.

This table of CO2 emissions from electricity generation, by country shows that the US has one of the most carbon intensive electrical grids in the world. France, on the other hand, with its high concentration of nuclear power (78%) has one of the least carbon intensive electricity grids in the world. While the UK grid’s carbon intensiveness at 557kg CO2/mWeh sits just above the world average of 548kg CO2/mWeh.

While it is possible (though not probable) that UK IT applications outsourced to the cloud would be hosted in a country with a lower carbon intensity than the UK, the chances of a French IT application being hosted in a country with a lower carbon intensity than France are virtually nil.

Given this, the assertion by the CDP report that

large businesses in France and the UK can reduce CO2 emissions from their IT estate by 50% compared to a scenario where there was no cloud computing.

seems, at best, extremely improbable.

One problem with coming up with reports like this is the lack of transparency from cloud providers on their locations, their energy and carbon footprints. If all cloud providers reported these metrics, it would be a far simpler matter to decide whether cloud computing is green, or not. Without these data, there is absolutely no way to say whether moving to the cloud increases or decreases CO2 emissions.

If you are wondering why the Carbon Disclosure Project and Verdantix are so bullish in their assertions that Cloud Computing is Green – if you scroll to the bottom of the report, you’ll see this:

CDP & Verdantix's motivations

This study was supported by AT&T
For more information on AT&T Cloud Solutions go to …

The report was paid for by the Cloud Solutions division of AT&T. Enough said.

Photo credit fotdmike


Is there really any need for baseload power?

No nuclear waste

Photo credit wonderferret

The electricity grid may not need “baseload” generation sources like coal and nuclear to backup the variability of supply from renewables.

Jon Wellinghof is the Chairman of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC is an independent agency that amongst other things, regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil – for more on FERC’s responsibilities see their About page. Chairman Wellinghoff has been involved in the energy industry for 30 years and appointed to the FERC as a commissioner by then president Bush in 2006.

Last year, shortly after being appointed as Chairman of the FERC, Mr Wellinghoff announced that:

No new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States….

Wellinghoff said renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands. Nuclear and coal plants are too expensive, he added.

“I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism,” he said. “Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind’s going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you’ll dispatch that first.”…

“What you have to do, is you have to be able to shape it,” he added. “And if you can shape wind and you can effectively get capacity available for you for all your loads.

“So if you can shape your renewables, you don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. And, in fact, most plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they’re very inflexible. You can’t ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism.”

This was quite an unusual contention at the time (and still is) and despite the Chairman’s many years working in the sector it was, by and large, ignored – even by the administration who had appointed him to the Chairmanship. In fact, the Obama administration has since announced financial backing for new nuclear power plants.

However, a study published last week by the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research backs Chairman Wellinghoff’s assertion. In a study of North Carolina’s electricity needs it concluded backup generation requirements would be modest for a system based largely on solar and wind power, combined with efficiency, hydroelectric power, and other renewable sources like landfill gas:

“Even though the wind does not blow nor the sun shine all the time, careful management, readily available storage and other renewable sources, can produce nearly all the electricity North Carolinians consume,” explained Dr. John Blackburn, the study’s author. Dr. Blackburn is Professor Emeritus of Economics and former Chancellor at Duke University.

“Critics of renewable power point out that solar and wind sources are intermittent,” Dr. Blackburn continued. “The truth is that solar and wind are complementary in North Carolina. Wind speeds are usually higher at night than in the daytime. They also blow faster in winter than summer. Solar generation, on the other hand, takes place in the daytime. Sunlight is only half as strong in winter as in summertime. Drawing wind power from different areas — the coast, mountains, the sounds or the ocean — reduces variations in generation. Using wind and solar in tandem is even more reliable. Together, they can generate three-fourths of the state’s electricity. When hydroelectric and other renewable sources are added, the gap to be filled is surprisingly small. Only six percent of North Carolina’s electricity would have to come from conventional power plants or from other systems.”

With larger and more inter-connected electricity grids, the requirement for baseload falls even further because the greater the geographical spread of your grid, the greater the chances that the wind will be blowing or the sun shining in some parts of it.

So, is there really any need for baseload power any more, or is this now just a myth perpetuated by those with vested interests?

post gives realtime CO2 intensity of electricity generation in the UK


If you actively select for cheaper electricity, you are de facto selecting for greener electricity because cheaper electricity has a higher % of renewable energy in the mix.

I wrote previously that it would be great if utility companies were mandated to publish realtime generation mix (% from coal, % for nuclear, % from wind, etc.).

Then if you had a truly open market for electricity, it should be possible to dynamically switch suppliers on the fly, based on the price and the realtime generation mix. If people were actively selecting for greener electricity (and given that cheaper electricity typically has a higher % of green, why wouldn’t they?), imagine the demand signal that would send to the suppliers! There would be an enormous rush to build more renewables and Kingsnorth would be shelved quicker than you can say “dirty coal”.

That idea is a step closer to reality today with the launch in the UK of This is a site which gives a realtime feed of just how “carbon intense” UK electricity is at any given moment. The data behind the real time feed comes directly from the computer systems that manage the UK’s electricity trading market. This data tells how much electricity each type of power generator (e.g. coal power stations or wind farms) are currently producing during any particular 5-minute interval.

One of the beauties of this site is that they provide an xml feed of the realtime carbon intensity data (see the pdf on how to access the feed for more info). The xml feed will allow organisations to programatically monitor the CO2 emissions associated with electricity generation in the UK. Thus it will be possible to have devices programmed to automatically respond to realtime CO2 intensity signals coming from i.e. shutting down when highly carbon intensive and starting up when carbon-light. This will be a big help in reducing the organisation’s carbon footprint. also has a forum where people can get involved suggesting methodology improvements, ways to improve the numbers (calculation or display) and how to use the data.

Now they just need to build this out for every other country on the planet!

[Disclosure – one of the companies involved in this project (AMEE) is a GreenMonk client]


The cheaper the electricity the lower its carbon footprint!

Supply and demand

Photo Credit Milton CJ

I was speaking at the EventoBlog España conference on Saturday and I made the comment that electricity’s carbon footprint tends to increase as it becomes more expensive.

In follow-up questions, I failed to explain well what I meant so I will attempt to do so here.

Electricity pricing (on the wholesale market) is a function of supply and demand. When demand is high, electricity is expensive, when demand is low, electricity is typically cheap.

For weather based renewables (wind, solar, wave) – they produce power completely independently of the price of electricity, so they produce the same amount whether electricity is cheap or expensive.

Since weather based renewables are on average a constant percentage then they tend to have a higher slice of the market when electricity is in low demand/cheaper.

In other words, weather based renewables are independent of demand, therefore at times of low demand, they have a higher share of the market. This is even more so the case for wind which tends to blow more at night when demand is lower.

As there is a definite correlation between low demand and low price, it can be said by extension that the cheaper the electricity, the lower its carbon footprint!


Is micro (home) generation of electricity good for the environment?

Home solar
Photo Credit benefit of hindsight

Microgeneration, the generation of electricity by home owners, is becoming increasingly common, especially with the cost of energy going up and the cost of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels for the home falling.

The majority of people deploying these solutions are doing so to 1) lower their home energy bills and 2) to help the environment.

What if I told you that often installing microgeneration equipment does not help the environment?

Bear with me while I try to explain. This is complex, counter-intuitive and I am not the world’s best communicator!

Grid operators have problems integrating renewable energy sources onto the grid right now because they are a variable source of supply. Couple that with the variability of demand and your grid starts to become increasingly unstable.

By far the most economic renewable energy source currently is wind but wind energy’s supply curve is often almost completely out of phase with demand (wind blows stronger at night when there is least demand for energy).

The more renewables that are brought onto the grid, the greater an issue this becomes with grid operators having to shut down production from wind farms in times of oversupply! Bear in mind also that there has to be enough generation capacity from non-wind sources (oil, gas, coal, nuclear, etc.) to pick up the slack on days when the wind doesn’t blow.

In times of oversupply from renewables, it would be far preferable to be ramping up consumption of energy using moveable loads, rather than shutting down production from renewables.

Now consider the home-owner who has deployed their own wind turbine. At times when the wind is blowing this home-owner is generating power thereby reducing their demand just when there is an oversupply on the grid! And if they have a net metering agreement with their utility, they further exacerbate the problem by pumping extra electricity into the grid, just when it isn’t required!

Conversely, on calm days, when extra energy is most needed, micro-generation contributes nothing.

There are two main problems:
1. There are no economic energy storage technologies currently available – though this situation is evolving rapidly with the ramping up of investment into battery research by the transportation industry in particular and
2. Real-time pricing data for electricity generation are not exposed to the consumer – if they were, and automated demand response mechanisms were put in place, you would see a radical shift in the energy consumption curve (people would consume energy when it was cheaper – i.e. when it is abundant).

If these two nuts were cracked i.e. economic energy storage mechanisms were available and real-time pricing data were exposed, micro-generators could generate energy when the wind blows, store it and then profitably sell it back to the grid when demand increases, or the wind drops.

For now though, while microgeneration may be beneficial in reducing your energy bills, it is of no benefit to the environment.

Note that I didn’t address CHP in this post because I was trying to keep things simple! CHP can be beneficial, as can any microgeneration, if the production of energy increases in line with the price of electricity.

As the price of electricity goes up, so too does its carbon footprint. If you consume electricity when it is cheap, you are facilitating the greater penetration of renewables onto the grid. If, as a micro-generator, you can produce clean power when electricity is expensive, then you are helping the environment.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I fundamentally believe microgeneration is a good thing. However, given the current antiquated state of the grid in many countries, the disconnect between generation and demand profiles for wind particularly, and the lack of decent energy storage technologies, the environmental benefits of microgeneration are far from straightforward. This will change as energy storage options improve and demand response mechanisms and smart grids are deployed.


Why don’t we already have a real time market for electricity?

Supply and Demand
Photo Credit whatnot

If Demand Response is such a good idea and will help get more renewables onto the grid, why isn’t it being embraced by the grid management companies?

Most grid management companies have been in business for decades managing a grid in which the supply is manageable and the demand is variable but reasonably predictable – typically daily demand is “this day last year +2.5%”!

Now grid management companies are faced with a situation where an increasing percentage of their supply is coming from variable sources (i.e. wind) – if the wind blows more than anticipated, too much electricity is generated and if it blows less than anticipated, the converse is true. This totally messes up their planning and consequently grid management companies hate wind, and think of it as unpredictable, negative demand!

Instead of having such a negative attitude to renewables and shutting them down in favour of fossil fuels they should be asking how can we facilitate the greater penetration of clean renewable energy sources onto the grid.

In the coming years, the demand for electricity will increase significantly as transportation goes more electric (electric and plug-in electric cars, bikes, trucks, etc.) and as heating moves more to electricity. This will add demand to the grid system but this increased demand is eminently movable – for the most part you don’t care if your car re-charges at 7pm or 4am as long as it is re-charged when you want to leave for work at 8am. Similarly with heating, if you use storage heaters (and they will become more common) you don’t care when they suck in the heat as long as they heat the house the following day.

If you can move the demand to a time when traditionally the requirement for electricity was low, you can deliver it over the same infrastructure, thereby selling significantly more electricity without having to massively upgrade the network.

The upshot of this is that an increasing movable demand (the ability to time shift consumption) should be a strong business case for a real-time electricity market. Let demand be guided by supply (as indicated by price). With a real time market for electricity you need never shut down wind farms in favour of fossil fuels, you sell more electricity and you enable a greater penetration of renewables onto the grid. Win, win, win.

Why hasn’t this happened already? Ask your local grid management company.