Claim: Trendy Green Corporates "underestimating" Coal Usage

Diagram from Page 4 of the Lux Report "Coal Computing: How Companies Misunderstand Their Dirty Data Centers"
Diagram from Page 4 of the Lux Report “Coal Computing: How Companies Misunderstand Their Dirty Data Centers”

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

A new report from Lux Research has suggested that Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, and other big name tech businesses, corporations which make substantial claims about the “sustainability” of their business models, have significantly underestimated how much their data centres depend on coal generated electricity.

Lux state “Each year, the datacentres that power social media, streaming video, cloud computing, and connected devices use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity – enough to power New York City twice over – and their consumption is still growing rapidly. The companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple that run them have the most advanced data analytics tools at their disposal, as well as high-minded public commitments to sustainability.

“Our team of data scientists analyzed the North American electric grid, improving the accuracy of carbon reporting by a factor of 80. The results show that many sites are far more reliant on coal than reported – notably, they include many large data centers,” said Ory Zik, Lux Research Vice President of Analytics and the team leader of Lux’s energy benchmarking.

“For example, we found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven datacentres, in particular at its Berkeley County, S.C. location,” he added.

Read more:’-carbon-footprint

The report can be downloaded here, though you have to provide some personal information to request the download.

Lux also published information about their methodology in Environmental Science and Technology;


Using a complex network framework, the North American electric grid is modeled as a dynamic, equilibrium-based supply chain of more than 100 interconnected power control areas (PCAs) in the contiguous United States, Canada, and Northern Mexico. Monthly generation and yearly inter-PCA exchange data reported by PCAs are used to estimate a directed network topology. Variables including electricity, as well as primary fuels, technologies, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with power generation can be traced through the network, providing energy source composition statistics for power consumers at a given location. Results show opportunities for more precise measurement by consumers of emissions occurring on their behalf at power plants. Specifically, we show a larger range of possible factors (∼0 to 1.3 kgCO2/kWh) as compared to the range provided by the EPA’s eGRID analysis (∼0.4 to 1 kgCO2/kWh). We also show that 66–73% of the variance in PCA-level estimated emissions savings is the result of PCA-to-PCA differences that are not captured by the larger eGRID subregions. The increased precision could bolster development of effective greenhouse gas reporting and mitigation policies. This study also highlights the need for improvements in the consistency and spatiotemporal resolution of PCA-level generation and exchange data reporting.

Read more:

Lux are not claiming the underestimation of coal usage is deliberate; rather they seem to be suggesting that the US EPA eGRID database, upon which the named companies base their erroneous “sustainability” claims, substantially underestimates coal usage, due to inferior methodology.

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February 9, 2016 8:19 am

Just like those coal-powered cars you see going down the highway. I have wondered how they function in the winter up north.

Reply to  barryjo
February 9, 2016 8:30 am

Montreal we put coal chunks under our tires for ice traction . and in the old days as a replacement for rubber pucks. Go BTU

Reply to  Russell
February 9, 2016 2:41 pm

Yes, in the old days. A lump of coal was indeed used instead of a rubber puck. So much snow, playing hockey on the sidewalks it was easy to loose a puck. So we used a lump of coal.

Reply to  barryjo
February 9, 2016 8:46 am

Anyone who lives in the North or Midwest can attest to the fact that cold will sap battery strength. We were in Athens, GA last summer. The temps were very hot. There was a news story how excessive heat will sap battery strength also. The driver of a Leaf who travels to and from Athens to Atlanta lamented he could not make the trip on a single charge. If the driver is caught in the epic Atlanta rush hour (often lasts all day) traffic, they will run out of juice.

Reply to  TeeWee
February 9, 2016 10:10 am

Tee Wee
Good point: cold and hot weather will sap battery strength.
zappers = the heater, the windscreen wipers, the dehumidifier heaters in the rear window, video/music entertainment centre. Etc..
On top of battery’s losing as much as 5% power efficiency each year,
Once you’ve used them for a while, they are never as good as they were when they were new. When people ask the range, rarely do they ask what will the range be in three to 5 years – but they should. I don’t think most people that are considering an electric vehicle long term performance fully.
Electric cars are a bit of a dud!!!

Phil R
Reply to  TeeWee
February 9, 2016 10:51 am

I hadn’t thought about it, but it is a good point. I wonder how many backups/traffic jams have been caused by e-cars running out of power. Don’t recall seeing many news stories about it, but expect it happens, and will happen with much more regularity as e-car populations increase.

M Seward
Reply to  TeeWee
February 9, 2016 12:38 pm

You only have to look at the energy storage density of batteries vs hydrocarbons to fully appreciate the simple nature of the problem. If you wanted the same range and general performance of hydrocarbon fuel you would need a couple of tonnes of batteries and then a whole lot more just to drag the extra couple of tonnes around.
Its like expecting a horse to fly. Duuhh.

February 9, 2016 8:28 am

The Apple Data Center at Mainden, NC, runs off the grid, and not the big solar farm next door. How do I know? I live close enough to know that the sun doesn’t shine there at night.

Tom Halla
February 9, 2016 8:31 am

Bad information from the EPA E-Grid–I could not imagine such a thing :). One can only speculate why.

Reply to  Eric Worrall
February 9, 2016 8:44 am

Top level urgent meeting in the Whitehouse EPA / Obama Work Lunch.

Reply to  Tom Halla
February 9, 2016 12:35 pm

But eGrid is a model! How can that be wrong? /sarc

February 9, 2016 8:50 am

Solyndra didn’t use solar to power there factory, and GE doesn’t use wind to power their turbine factories. Google gave up on solar, and sent the bill to the tax payer. Warren Buffet’s famous wind farm quote is that the reason they build the farms is for the tax credit.

Buffet told an audience in Omaha, Nebraska recently. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

February 9, 2016 8:57 am

Lux are not claiming the underestimation of coal usage is deliberate; [but] due to inferior methodology.

Funny how EPA inferior methodologies seem to consistently favor renewables and dis-favor importance of fossil fuels. I guess inferior methodologies are easier to manipulate into fitting pre-ordained expectations.

michael hart
February 9, 2016 9:00 am

Well duuhh…
People started lying to doctors (and themselves) about how much cholesterol they consumed about the same time as doctors started telling them to stop consuming it.
And now doctors have changed their minds.

Paul Coppin
February 9, 2016 9:12 am

They don’t use the grid power that is generated by coal or gas, only that part which comes from hydro or “green” sources. They have smart meters which can tell the difference.
Do I really need the /sarc? Besides, they don’t really give a damn.

Reply to  Paul Coppin
February 9, 2016 9:55 am

Here in Canada, the liberal Greenies actually believe that is what ” Smart Meters ” are for ..I kid you not !

Reply to  Marcus
February 9, 2016 10:42 am

Have you sold them any “Rolex” watches lately?

Reply to  Marcus
February 12, 2016 12:57 pm

My cousin works in Nigeria . . . .

Eustace Cranch
February 9, 2016 9:19 am

OT question- just curious, how many of you are using speech-to-text apps to post or comment? I see a lot of homophone typos (e.g. there/their, hear/here) and wondered if STT is the culprit. Or maybe autocorrect?

Sandy In Limousin
Reply to  Eustace Cranch
February 9, 2016 9:59 am

I suspect a minority, based purely on personal experience of of abuse of the written word in whatever version of English is being used.

Reply to  Eustace Cranch
February 9, 2016 11:25 am

I see more apologies blaming autocorrect than STT, so I’d say a high percentage is there. Sometimes too it’s “finger memory” typing what sounds right and the mind not catching it’s the wrong word. I suffer from that one myself when I’m in a hurry and my fingers are flying to keep up with my thoughts.

Eustace Cranch
Reply to  A.D. Everard
February 9, 2016 12:48 pm

I never learned touch typing. Maybe there’s a small upside to that- no “finger memory”. I have to think about every word I type.

February 9, 2016 9:20 am

Timothy Leary was the Father of “High-Minded Commitments”.

Jim B
February 9, 2016 9:49 am
February 9, 2016 9:50 am

The moral of this story is that when you try to subvert capitalism with a flawed ideology, the free market finds a way around the stupidity.

Reply to  Marcus
February 9, 2016 10:19 am

Marcus, when you see “utm” after a “?”, that last part is a tracker. Remove everything in the link from the “/?” onward before you publish.
This is the correct link: Try it out.

Mike the Morlock
Reply to  Marcus
February 9, 2016 11:29 am

Marcus February 9, 2016 at 9:54 am
More insanity from the liberal fruits and nuts !!
Marcus don’t let it bug you, all it does is cause is epidemic of belly laughs among the army brass.
The United States Army has had that covered since December 25 1776
Like I said the military has that covered. President Obama of course didn’t study enough history

Bruce Cobb
February 9, 2016 10:13 am

Confirmation bias comes to mind.

February 9, 2016 1:21 pm

Egads! It’s much worse than we thought! That is if you are a big company with lots of money to spend on (LUX) research.
With all due respect to the good folks at LUX, let’s analyze the mission of this report:
– Our model (Open-source, scrupulously peer-reviewed and accepted by all the industry players /sarc) showed that big companies with lots of money are looking to have their green tentacles cut off should further reports show that it is even worse than we thought it was worse before.
– More research is needed, of course – with LUX research
– Given enough “research” these reports will show that their client companies have “mitigated” their sins.
The green movement has made a career out of extortion. Now it is starting to feed on its own.

Reply to  markopanama
February 9, 2016 5:12 pm

Add coercion to the green movement as well!

February 9, 2016 1:26 pm

Oh geez, curse you spellchecker – testicles, not tentacles, you carbon-spewing, earth destroying data center dwelling monster.

Bill Snow
Reply to  markopanama
February 9, 2016 4:19 pm

Oh, I don’t know. I believe “tentacles” fit just as well.

February 9, 2016 2:09 pm

Japan ignoring trendy CAGW group, WWF:
9 Feb: Japan Times: Japan to get more coal-fired power plants thanks to Environment Ministry policy reversal
In a policy back flip Tuesday, the Environment Ministry gave the green light to construction of new coal-fired power plants in exchange for power companies and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry taking tougher measures to reduce global warming emissions…
World Wildlife Fund Japan issued a statement opposing the move, saying it could result in coal-fired power plants operating into the latter half of this century while impeding the country’s counter-emission measures for an extensive period…
“Tolerating the increase of coal-fired plants gives the wrong message to society, (it says) that it is still OK to use coal,” WWF Japan said.

February 9, 2016 2:15 pm

And I am one of the millions using their data centers running my computer on 97% coal-fired power. Perhaps they should shut down when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, and exclude all those not as green as they claim to be. 🙂

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