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Cloud computing and electric vehicles have something in common: they both obscure the source of their power.

Often EV owners are pleased to believe that their cars are environmentally friendly because they produce no harmful emissions. They forget that, depending on where they live, the power used to charge their cars may come partially or wholly from ancient coal-burning plants that produce tons of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Similarly, IT staffers may rejoice at their reduced electricity bills when shifting to the cloud and away from their own data centers. But the massive data centers run by public-cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure consume gobs of electricity, the cost of which is built into the rental rates paid by public-cloud consumers.

(Photo via Shutterstock).
Shutterstock Photo.

AWS, along with its rivals, is trying to cut the pollution its data centers emit by building wind and solar farms. Most recently, the cloud leader announced plans to built a 189-megawatt (MW) wind farm in Hardin County, Ohio, that will generate 530,000 megawatt hours of power per year starting in December 2017. That’s enough to power about 50,000 homes U.S. homes for a year.

The Hardin County farm will be AWS’s fifth renewable-energy project in the U.S., including three other wind farms: a 100-MW farm in Ohio slated to come online in May 2017, a 100-MW farm in Indiana already online, and a 280-MW farm in North Carolina scheduled to start up by December. AWS also has an 80-MW solar farm in Virginia that’s already up and running.

AWS aims to run its centers with 100 percent renewable energy eventually. It’s already powered by more than 40 percent renewable energy and is aiming for 50 percent by the end of 2017.

Second-place public-cloud provider Microsoft has similar objectives, though a tad less ambitious. President Brad Smith said in May that 44 percent of the power used in the company’s data centers comes from renewable resources — that is, wind, solar and hydro. The goal is to hit 50 percent by the end of 2018, 60 percent “early in the next decade, and then to keep improving from there.”

Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012, meaning that it has remedied shortfalls in renewable energy by buying certificates that help offset carbon emissions.

Third-place public-cloud provider Google is taking a different approach, though it too is committed to using 100 percent renewably generated electricity. In a blog post, Gary Demasi, director of global infrastructure, said that AWS’s approach — building dedicated sources of renewable power earmarked specifically for data centers — “doesn’t usually make economic or practice sense. Instead, large renewable-energy projects should be developed where they are most productive and cost-effective, which is usually miles away from where our data centers are best located.”

Google’s solution is to buy each year the same volume of renewable energy that it consumes in its operations. And it does prefer to buy power from sources closest to its data centers, Demasi wrote.

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