Image: Amazon.com screengrab
Amazon's Fire Phone, the company's much-discussed foray into the smartphone market, has begun shipping. Thus far, reviewers have focused on its flashy, gimmicky features, but the biggest thing that sets the Fire apart from its Android and Apple competitors probably isn't the clean interface or the unlimited photo storage—it's the dirty power behind it. When Fire users upload their photos and data to Amazon's cloud, they'll be creating a lot more pollution than iPhone owners, Greenpeace has alleged.
“Amazon’s new Fire phone is a stone-age machine when it comes to the dated, polluting energy it still uses to power its cloud services," Greenpeace's Senior Energy Campaigner, David Pomerantz, said in a statement condemning the company's energy use today.
We don't think about it much, but our phones are actually using a tremendous amount of energy, and not just when we charge them up. Our photos, music, and data are increasingly stored on the cloud, which is housed on servers that are rapidly becoming one of the world's largest energy sucks.
Yet a recent Greenpeace report showed that Apple and Google each use an admirable amount of clean energy in their operations. Both made a concerted effort to power the servers that make their clouds possible with solar, geothermal, and wind power—iPhone users' data, for instance, is likely to be stored on iCloud servers in North Carolina that run on energy generated at a private solar plant nearby.
Apple has made a commitment to running its iCloud on 100 percent clean energy. Amazon, meanwhile, operates the dirtiest servers of any major tech giant that operates its own servers—only 15 percent of its energy comes from clean sources, which is about the default national average. Much of the rest comes from polluting sources like coal and natural gas. In other words, Amazon makes no effort at all to power its corner of the internet (which is big, and growing) with clean energy. That includes its own cloud.
"It's fair to say that Amazon's smartphone runs the dirtiest cloud, and cloud use is becoming an increasingly large part of a phone's energy footprint right now thanks to services like photo and video storage," Pomerantz told me in an email. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Greenpeace's report puts it even more bluntly. "Amazon Web Services (AWS), owned by Amazon.com, has grown since its launch in 2006 into one of the largest digital ecosystems of the online world," the report notes. "Unfortunately, AWS has dropped further and further behind its competitors in building an internet that runs on renewable sources of energy, estimated at only 15%, and is the least transparent of any company we evaluated."
This should matter. Data centers consume two percent of the nation's energy, and worldwide, industry now usurps about 10 percent of the world's energy, and a lot of that is dirty, climate change-driving coal power. Calling out tech companies for relying on polluting power sources—and publicizing the clean energy achievements of those that switch—has been one of the environmental group's most successful campaigns over the last few years. It has awarded Apple, Google, and Facebook with As and Bs for their efforts—meanwhile, Amazon is Fs, nearly across the board.
With all other factors being comparable—the Fire is manufactured by Foxconn in China, like most other smartphones, with the same component parts—the extra pollution created by the Fire Phone's dirty, coal-fired cloud is enough to make it a top contender for the dirtiest smartphone on the market.
“Cloud-based storage of photos and other smartphone data doesn’t have to harm the environment: Apple, in stark contrast to Amazon, is powering its iCloud with 100% renewable energy," Pomerantz says. "If Amazon wants to offer its customers a modern phone, it could start by powering its operations with modern, renewable forms of electricity like the wind and solar power currently being employed by its competitors.”
The post title has been changed since publication to better reflect the Greenpeace report's claims.
UPDATE #1: A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services responds: “Greenpeace’s data is incorrect, and their claims about AWS data centers are inaccurate and misleading. We’ve told them this, and they continue to ignore the facts and irresponsibly publicize it. AWS has been and continues to be committed to working hard on our own, and together with our power providers all over the world, to offer AWS Cloud services in an environmentally friendly way in all of our Regions. AWS operates efficient and highly utilized datacenters across 10 different Regions globally, two of which (Oregon and GovCloud Regions) use 100 percent carbon-free power.”
UPDATE #2: Greenpeace responds: "We have no interest in getting Amazon's data wrong, which is why we asked them to share their own data with us and the public. Unlike other companies, Amazon declined to do that. We have used the best public sources we can to determine their energy mix, which means government or utility data. We would be very happy to update Amazon's data if it simply followed the lead of Apple, Google, Facebook and became more transparent with the public about its energy mix and use.
We did share our data with Amazon in advance of publishing the report. Amazon told us that our energy mix data for some of its AWS facilities was incorrect, but refused to elaborate or offer alternative data for any of its facilities other than Ireland, where it claimed a mix of 50 % renewable energy and 22 percent coal. When asked, Amazon refused to provide data on how it is achieving that mix in Ireland, so Greenpeace has continued to use Irish national data for that facility. Using Amazon’s Ireland data would result in a company CEI that would be improved from 15 to 19 percent, still quite low. (We note this on the bottom of p 64 of the report).
As for the AWS Oregon and "GovCloud" region (which is also housed in Oregon), our assessment of that facility is on p. 64 of the report in the facilities appendix. We use publicly available grid numbers for that region, which place the data center as being almost entirely powered by hydropower (which we count as clean for our clean energy index), with a small amount of other sources in the mix as well. We invite Amazon to be transparent and provide more accurate data for all of their facilities. If Amazon can show how they're getting cleaner energy than our assessment has determined using the best available public data, we will update our figures.
It's worth noting that while Amazon is currently powering with hydropower in Oregon, which is carbon-free, it is growing so fast there that its utility partner lobbied effectively to avoid meeting a state law that requires it to produce more wind and solar energy. If Amazon were acting responsibly, it would partner with its utility to bring more wind and solar to its energy grid, not less.
Having one hydropowered data center out of an otherwise vastly dirty energy footprint, based mostly in Virginia on a coal, gas and nuclear powered grid, is a far cry from the ambitious 100 % renewable energy goal that peers like Apple, Facebook and Google are pursuing."