Ontario data goes into the (Virginia coal) cloud, and off its own clean power

“How much energy does it take to transmit a gigabyte of electronic information over the internet? A recent Google study put it, with lots of qualification, at 0.2 kilowatt-hours.

Now, check out the website ontario.ca. This is the official website of the government of Ontario. The photo below is what I got when I visited that site at 4:00 p.m. on December 23. It shows a crisp, clear winter scene, perhaps even in Ontario. But the website is coming, according to Global News, courtesy of Amazon’s cloud server located in the U.S. state of Virginia.

A stereotypical Ontario scene, brought to you courtesy of coal that was dug out of the ground and burned in Virginia. Ontario outsourced its data centres to Amazon’s cloud server services. Amazon’s cloud servers are in Virginia, where electricity is cheap, unlike in Ontario.

A stereotypical Ontario winter scene, brought to you courtesy of coal that was dug out of the ground and burned in Virginia. Ontario outsourced its data centres to Amazon’s cloud server services. Amazon’s cloud servers are in Virginia, where electricity is cheap, unlike in Ontario. Virginia’s electricity is cheap because much of it is made by burning coal, which is dirt-cheap because it is, literally, dirt.

The Google study mentioned at the top, which estimated that it takes 0.2 kWh of electrical energy to transmit 1 gigabyte over the internet, considered the power consumption only of the transmission equipment, not the terminal devices like servers or computers.

I would be interested to know the electricity requirements of running the terminal end, on the government side, of the servers and data centres that make ontario.ca available on the internet. A 2007 U.S. EPA report to the U.S. congress estimated that U.S. federal government servers and data centres used 6 billion kWh of electricity annually. It would be surprising if Ontario used any more than a small fraction of that. If we were to apply the usual one-tenth comparison between the U.S. and Canada, we might assume that Canada’s federal government servers and data centres use 600 million kWh per year. Could we use this back-of-the-envelope estimate to say that maybe Ontario servers and data centre requirements added up to 200 million kWh per year? Why not.

In moving most of its data centre services out of Ontario, a clean power jurisdiction, and into Virginia, a dirty power jurisdiction that gets most of its electricity from fossil fuels, the Province of Ontario undercut its own environmental case for closing its own coal plants.

The CIPK of Ontario grid electricity in 2013 was around 77 grams. That means that each kilowatt-hour of Ontario grid electricity came with a packet of carbon dioxide (CO2) of 77 grams. A packet that size would fit into a 40-litre water jug, at 0°C and one atmosphere.

So if in 2013 the website ontario.ca had resided on servers in data centres located in Ontario and running on Ontario grid electricity, and if they had used 200 million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy, their carbon footprint would have been around 15,540 metric tons. That is enough CO2 to fill Rogers Centre 5.3 times.

Now, in September 2014 Virginia’s state-wide grid CIPK was, I estimate, 408.9 grams. (I base this on the U.S. EIA Virginia net electricity generation by source.)

Based on that, let’s assume that Virginia’s grid electricity CIPK is 408.9 grams. That is enough to fill a 55-gallon drum.

If Ontario now uses 200 million kWh of Virginia power to run ontario.ca, then that site’s carbon footprint from electricity use would be 81,780 tons—more than five times what it was in Ontario in 2013.

Almost makes you wonder why we shut down our provincial coal-fired power plants.

Here is what Amazon says about the environmental sustainability of the Web services that Ontario is now buying:

In addition to the environmental benefits inherently associated with running applications in the cloud, AWS [Amazon Web Services] has a long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage for our global infrastructure footprint.

That’s what I call greenwash.

I guess that until the Utopia materializes, Amazon will continue to run their servers on 408.9 gram grid electricity, backed up with diesel generators to make sure sites like ontario.ca are never down. And we in Ontario, with electricity that is five times as clean, will keeping paying them.

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