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Green web hosting: Gimmick or green?

Tue, 5th February 2008, 17:16

It's not easy being Green. You've decided to do your bit to help the environment by choosing a “green” host. Thanks to marketing and convenience, you are starting to see a lot of hosts calling themselves Green. Say it loud, they're Green and proud!

What does it mean? I hate to break it to you, but generally not much. Part of it is marketing. Purchasing carbon credits. Maybe it is being dishonest. Are there real choices out there? We decided to investigate. We try to stay neutral here, but occasionally an issue presents itself that makes us throw neutrality out the window. We want you to be armed with all facts to make your decisions. That said, this is an opinion piece, and the more I read the stronger my opinion gets.

Investigating the claims, the first thing I found out is that there are no easy answers. Anything listed as a positive step has a detractor somewhere. Wind Power? Dead birds. Hydro-electric power? Flooded forests. Buying carbon credits? Unregulated and "fishy". Each positive has a well thought out negative attached to it.

AISO: Carbon-Free Hosting

Let's begin by looking at someone doing it right. Affordable Internet Services Online (AISO) was chosen as the host of Live Earth, being recognized as the only true “Green” host. They are 100% Solar Powered, not only their datacenter, but servers and office as well. They invested over $100,000 in their 120 solar panels, which bring the energy to the batteries that provide consistent power. A read of their “Commitment to the Environment” page shows a lack of buzzwords and a lot of concrete details. They aren't kidding. The serious thought put into the system shows an absolute commitment to being environmentally friendly. It also serves as a great resource to gather ideas to make your home or office green. They use:

  • Solar Tubes for lighting
  • Steel building materials and environmentally friendly insulation, giving them an R-value equal to R 50. Whut?
  • Propane powered backup generators
  • Water-cooled AC units
  • Virtualization used for both the servers and the office desktops
  • They are designing a “green roof”

The link above dives into much more detail. My point is that they aren't just buying some energy credits and saying they are green. They are setting a very high standard by which other “green hosts” should be judged.

Next up we have Dreamhost and Hostpapa. Both claim to be “Carbon Neutral” and “Green”. AISO is “Carbon-Free” The difference rests on if you buy into the idea of Carbon Offsets. I appreciate the effort to at least try something, but I am just not sold on offsets.

Update: It seems that a decent caring company towards the environment can still lack ethics & brains. AISO posts fake reviews to Hostjury.

Carbon Offsets: Big Business

Carbon Offsets, or Carbon Credits are something you can purchase to offset the carbon footprint you leave. It is a $100 million dollar a year industry. They are not regulated. There are a lack of standards and guidelines out there. They are notoriously difficult to verify. You are purchasing the hope that someone is going to follow through. Some ways carbon offsets work:

Tree Planting

Planting a tree to offset your carbon use sounds great, but there is a debate about the benefit. This route seems to be chosen because it is the cheapest. There are potential problems as well. When non-native trees are introduced (to save money) it can actually have a negative environmental impact. Can you be sure the tree planted by your host for you isn't contributing to monoculture? It is cheaper to plant eucalyptus and pine trees where they don't belong, and the effect can be devastating. East Africa has been hurt by this practice.

Renewable Energy

This type of offset theoretically funds renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or hydro-electric power and biofuel. This is a vague and confusing area and there is much debate as to whether there are tangible benefits to this. If a Renewable Energy Credit (REC) is purchased, the money goes to the owner of the renewable energy project. Your REC purchase has put money in the pocket of an owner, there is no rule as to what this owner has to do with it.

Energy Conservation

Energy Conservation offsets work on lowering the demand for energy. This is done by helping to fund energy efficient builings, fuel efficiency projects and cogeneration plants that generate both energy and heat.

There is a vigorous debate about the benefits of Carbon Offsets. One critic compared it to the purchases of indulgences in the middle ages. Some environmental activists argue that it is actually a negative, since it doesn't work to address reducing energy consumption. These purchases certainly don't reduce the amount of fossil fuels used to create electricity. Wouldn't the money hosts spend on these be better spent as reinvestment in their own business using more energy efficient hardware?

Purchasing something that is an abstract as opposed to changing my behavior seems like a cop out. It reminds me of eating fast food like a pig and paying someone else to diet. I can boast that I've lost 40 pounds, and it may be cheaper to hire an anorexic for the offset, but am I really doing good?

Apparent Dishonesty

I may not agree with Carbon Offsets, but I recognize their purchase as a a well-meaning step in the right direction. I definetely prefer them to unsubstantiated claims of being solar powered, like Iron Mountain claims. Their website brags about them being solar powered, but the evidence is lacking. There is a blog post from September 2007 showing two solar panels and describing how they will be installed, then a second post from a few days ago showing more solar panels on their roof. The September blog post said an update would be made when the panels were installed. Are we to believe that it took over four months to get them up?

There is a lack of information. We see pictures of solar cells. We are told that they break if you step on them. “Governments” are taken to task for not giving “a little extra effort for environmental efficiency.” I see a lot of vaguery and a lack of detail. What percentage of Iron Mountain's energy usage is handled by the solar cells? Does it power the break room, or all of their servers and offices? Are we to just take their word that they are solar powered? Stop pontificating and tell us what you have done, in real terms.

I was disappointed to read a post congratulating AISO for “following in Iron Mountain's footsteps”. Come on!
Edit: Within a few days of this post being made Iron Mountain did post pictures of their solar panels on their blog -- so it seems they're now in place at the very least.

Amusing Claims

I have seen other claims out there, setting the bar low for being considered green:

  • We telecommute, thus saving fossil fuels. If the nature of your work means you telecommute, it is disingenuous to brag about it. I slept last night instead of driving, I helped save the Earth!
  • We use a smaller space, saving on building materials. I will announce, here and now, that I will not build a fifteen million dollar dream home this year. The benefits to the environment will be tremendous, without that pull on resources and energy!
  • We recycle! This might be a big deal if it were 1975.
  • We will plant a tree for you! I find this really annoying. I am perfectly capable of planting my own tree, or donating five bucks to have one planted for me. This would be better worded as: We will spend five dollars (or less) for the marketing benefits!

I applaud the idea of going green, when it is motivated by the idea of doing better. When it is a meaningless marketing gimmick, it is a negative. When much fuss is made by Dreamhost and Hostpapa for making a purchase, or by Iron Mountain for the unsubstantiated “solar powered” claims, it doesn't seem fair to me that they get as much credit as AISO for being green. The move toward being green is welcome, but we need to verify that real steps are being taken.

If you are thinking of switching to a green host, ask some tough questions. Decide if Carbon Offsets make sense to you. If so, I'd be happy to sell you some. We can also look at our lives, where we can make the biggest difference of all. As the saying goes, “Think globally, act locally.”

What are your thoughts?

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