Green Business

"War of the Currents": Google, Facebook & Thomas Edison (Sustainability in Tech, Part 2)

Businesses are increasingly being judged within wider social frameworks and one of the most obvious ways to do this is via sustainability initiatives. Today, indexes, awards, and damning reports are popping up left, right and centre, whilst this year’s World Brand Congress is using “sustainability brands” as its overall theme. In the second of a two-part series on sustainability, Kathryn Cave looks at electricity, the benchmark of Green and its importance for big names such as Google, Facebook… and Thomas Edison.

In 1887, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and ‘father of electricity’ held a mass demonstration in West Orange, New Jersey.  Here he set up a 1,000 volt AC generator, attached it to a metal plate and publically electrocuted a dozen animals.  The press went nuts, coined the term “electrocution” and the electric chair was born.  Edison’s sole intention was to besmirch his arch rival, George Westinghouse.

This was the “War of Currents”, a battle which raged between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over the merits of AC and DC electricity. Edison knew, and in fact admitted years later, that AC was (for the purposes of the time) actually superior. DC could only provide services a few miles from the generator and utilised expensive thick copper wire making it cost prohibitive.  Yet Edison had already invested in 121 power stations across the US and so his intense smear campaign was hell bent on proving AC to be unsafe.

Since the very beginning, electricity - the way it is transported and the power it guzzles - has been strangely controversial… and bizarrely emotive. Today, the full force of this is hinged on sustainability, the environment and Green issues.  Yet you can see the transition from what Thom Metzger, author of the 1996 book “Blood and Volts,” described as “…this strange, almost religious aura”, to electricity. This was a world where: “Doctors were using it to try to revive corpses [and] galvanizing belts that sent a current through your groin – [in] a Victorian version of Viagra.” And today that passion and fervour are still in evidence… they just manifest themselves differently

Everything runs on electricity; electricity sits at the centre of everything. This is the power behind technology and although many regions of the world (take Nigeria, for example) have seemingly endless fossil fuels (like oil) and copious natural resources (like the sun), if they lack the final product (electricity) they struggle. On top of this, the biggest brands (tech or otherwise) are either lauded or vilified for their treatment of electricity… and the energy footprint they are leaving behind.

Last year two reports were released which sent shockwaves round the world. The first of these was a Greenpeace report, “How Dirty is Your Data?” which analysed data centre investment of the top 10 cloud companies and looked at the appalling energy footprint they were leaving behind.  The second  was a New York Times article entitled “Power, Pollution and the Internet”, which used a lengthy study to expose more dirty secrets of the data centre industry and included a now infamous quote from Peter Gross : “A single data centre can take more power than a medium size town.”

Yet as Kathrin Winkler from EMC pointed out in a blog on Green Biz, what people tend to forget is that the IT industry is improving itself very quickly. As she put it: “If the auto industry had gotten efficient as quickly as the IT industry in the last 40 years, we'd be getting 450,000 miles to the gallon.” The fact is, in a short time these reports have made a clear, identifiable difference. “Now on the back of [these reports] you see companies [like Google] committed to making a big change,” Roel Castelein tells me. Castelein, who aside from 15 years’ experience in the tech industry, is extremely passionate about Green issues, and acts as Marketing Committee Vice-Chair for The Green Grid continues: “They have [new] targets and things are changing so rapidly it is hard to tell where they are at.”

It is extremely difficult to judge environmental sustainability across the IT industry because to a large extent this depends on whether you are talking about hardware, software or online companies. It is, for example, relatively easy for online companies to make changes to their carbon footprints because they only have to think about their datacentres. Hardware companies on the other hand have a whole raft of manufacturing processes behind them. Not surprisingly, most of the seismic changes following these two pivotal reports have come from large online companies that have enough money to facilitate change.

Google has a lot of money and a vast centralised network of data centres so it is fairly straightforward for it to reduce its CO2 footprint if the right measures are put in place from the top of the organisation. This not something many companies can follow Google on because they simply don’t have the same set up… or the same volume of cash. “What I like about Google is that they take it very seriously,” Castelein tells me. In fact, Google ties with Cisco for first place in the latest Greenpeace ranking of IT sector climate leadership.  

Many of the other big-name IT companies also have ambitious plans. Apple  has recently laid out the details of a significant new solar power investment in its Nevada datacentre. Whilst Facebook  says it is aiming for 25% renewable energy by 2015 and expects its Lulea, Sweden, datacentre site to be instrumental.  Castelein believes “Facebook is leader of the pack. It is re-designing its own hardware to make it more energy efficient.”

He continues: “Facebook is the new kid on the block. [Whilst] Google is like a settled 45-year-old executive that has a very established business and a lot of recurring revenue, so can make decisions easily. But what I like about Facebook is that it is like a young 25-year-old year old, it doesn’t have this settled business and is struggling to make the break Google has. Yet it is already doing this stuff much earlier in its maturity cycle than Google ever did. It is at the same level of maturity Google was 10 – 15 years ago and is already taking this seriously now.”

“What about other companies?” I ask: “Apple is an interesting case,” he replies. “It is not as easy for it to change as Google, because it’s a software company, a hardware company and an online company [all rolled into one]. It could make iTunes carbon neutral or decide that iCloud could be carbon neutral. However it hasn’t made any big bold decisions in these things yet. Amazon is [the company that is] really lagging.”

Castelein stresses: “You can make a case for why things are changing slowly at Apple but Amazon is online, why is it not following the great examples of Google and Facebook? Of course [the reason is], it has a low cost model and works with razor thin margins so it is probably not that easy, but when you see how the company is expanding it is almost criminal. [Especially as] sustainability will reduce its electricity invoices over the next 10, 20, 50 years.”

In the unending story of electricity though, there is one divine irony for Thomas Edison. Today many people believe DC should stage a come-back because it works better for today’s emotionally charged topic… sustainability and efficiency. Ahh Mr Edison - if only you could have waited 126 years… you would have been able to launch a really good hate campaign.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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