Digital carbon – time to pay attention
By Nick Van Osdol
If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it. – Lord Kelvin
Two newsletters in a row feature this quote. This email is about Greenpixie, a company whose mission is to lead the world to digital sustainability.
And their CEO, John Ridd, is the one who actually put me on to the quote above, as it’s become a bit of a Greenpixie motto.
In Tuesday’s email, we discussed the SEC’s new proposed reporting requirements, which would require all public companies in the U.S. to report Scope 1 and 2 emissions and presumably that would encourage many companies to report their Scope 3 emissions as well.
Scope 3 emissions are those that aren’t directly related to producing or using electricity or heat. E.g., moving goods across the world if you’re Amazon.
What’s another big component of companies’ Scope 3 emissions that doesn’t always meet the eye the same way Amazon delivery trucks in your neighborhood might? It’s the electricity required to operate (and cool) the massive data centers that make it possible for me to write a draft of this email in a document that auto-saves every 4 minutes so I don’t lose my progress.
For tech companies, emissions from their data center operations are likely a considerable contributor to their overall emissions number. Even globally, emissions from digital operations (data usage, electricity, cloud computing, websites and internet systems), which Greenpixie refers to as ‘digital carbon’, are hard to ignore.
Smog and smokestacks over Singapore (more on Singapore later)
By some estimates, digital carbon emissions amount to 3-4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions – comparable to emissions from the aviation industry. Two trends are set to potentially inflate those numbers. For one, in case you’ve somehow missed all the conversation and hype surrounding the ‘metaverse’ in the past year… then a) congrats, you’re pretty unplugged and b) companies like Facebook Meta are betting the house that we’re all going to spend even more time online in the future (somehow?).
Secondly, as John and I discussed in the podcast we recorded (also live today (here), there’s a risk that Moore’s Law, which has held relatively strong since 1965 when it was postulated, is about to flatten out. Moore’s Law essentially stipulates that the computational power of computer chips doubles every 2 years and that they get cheaper at the same time.
This has allowed computing capacity to skyrocket while also cutting the required energy for a baseline level of computation. It’s the reason the computers that used to take up an entire room now fit in your pocket.
If Moore’s Law ‘flattens out’ however, then we start losing the benefit of crazy efficiency gains as we try to keep up with demand for more and more computation. Which would also mean more energy usage to power whatever metaverse we’re all hanging out in 5 years down the line.
Even if quantum computing comes to the rescue and renders this specific concern mute, John sees digital carbon emissions headed for 10, even 15% of global emissions in the coming decade. Time to start figuring out a plan to tackle that!
Today’s email and podcast release also have fortuitous timing. Greenpixie announced their new product Cloud NetZero this week. It concentrates on making it seamless for companies to understand their emissions footprint from their cloud operations, starting with the three largest cloud providers. In their own words:
Our tool demystifies the environmental impact of cloud computing.
Interested in checking out their MVP for your business? Greenpixie is accepting a limited number of beta users to test Cloud NetZero. Word on the street is beta users will receive future discounts and priority access to new features too:Sign up for the MVP
The concept of the ‘cloud’ was admittedly still murky to me a month ago. And this is a bit of intentional sleight of hand, the ‘cloud’ abstraction draws our attention away from the massive data centers required to make what looks like magic to those of us who aren’t computer engineers happen.
To be sure, data centers are hungrily eating up real estate globally. So much so that countries like Singapore have enacted moratoriums to stop all new data center development, in part because of how much of the grid’s capacity they absorb.
Especially in light of regulatory tailwinds, like the SEC’s planned requirement for companies to report on Scope 3 emissions, companies are going to need solutions like Greenpixie’s to understand their digital emissions before they can think about ways to reduce them.
Greenpixie can help companies regardless of which of the three major cloud providers they work with, be it AWS, Google Cloud, or Microsoft Azure. Under the hood, their calcs involve a combination of academic research, understanding local grid mixes where data centers operate, and significant technical facility with the data centers’ entire value chains.
To learn more about exactly how their software it works, you can:
- Listen to our recent podcast recording with CEO John Ridd (here)
- Enjoy a 90 second run-down by CTO Will Tinney (here)
Medium-term, Greenpixie is also considering how to become an engine for decarbonization, not just for assessing and reporting on digital carbon emissions. This’ll be an interesting question I’m keen to track with them over coming months.
If the grid mixes where data centers operate were composed of 100% low-carbon solutions, digital carbon wouldn’t be a thing. Since that’s a long way off in most places, there are concrete things data centers and the clients that use them can do to reduce emissions. For one, data centers are starting to enter into long-term Power Purchase agreements with independent renewable energy providers, often specifically because their clients are vocal about their desire to see data centers’ operations level up on sustainability.
On the most advanced end of the spectrum, there’s also companies like Crusoe Energy, who are building out data center colocation models with renewable energy operations like wind farms or stranded energy assets, like flaring on oil & gas sites, that can be valorized. In these instances data centers aren’t just powered by renewable energy, they actually help renewable energy developers expand capacity by acting as a ‘demand of last resort’, e.g. in valleys where demand from the grid itself for their energy is low.
What’s next for Greenpixie? Well… rolling out their MVP. & then a broader go-to-market push. If you’re curious for me, then make sure to check out the pod. We go much deeper on what they hope the next 5 years will look like in it.