What is Green Hosting?
As the world economy becomes increasingly digitalized, the amount of energy needed to operate our digital devices and websites – as well as the carbon footprint from non-renewable resources – is expected to significantly increase. The data centers which allow us as consumers to be constantly connected are estimated to consume between three and five percent of the world's power. How can large and small companies – regardless of their resources – contribute to reducing their carbon footprint? And how can consumers decide which web hosting plan to purchase based on their environmental commitment?
While larger companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook may have the resources to build their own infrastructure with solar panels and wind turbines and even lead the way in developing data centers powered by renewable resources, even corporate giants are often still unable to claim that they use these direct sources of renewable energy to power their servers 100% of the time.
These larger companies continue to invest in this type of infrastructure, while smaller companies, including many web hosting companies, have started to contribute in multiple ways to reduce their contribution to the carbon footprint even without these same resources. In recent years, these green hosting plans have become an important part of the hosting industry.
We explore the different methods these web hosting companies and how to evaluate their contribution to sustainability here in this guide.
What is Green Hosting?
While many web hosting companies market themselves as providing green hosting plans, the reality is that this term is difficult for consumers to understand. Does green hosting conform to an industry standard? Can web hosts that recycle, use more efficient data cooling systems, purchase carbon offsets, and buy Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) all be considered green? What if they only recycle, or only purchase carbon offsets?
This guide will clarify these different practices, and their qualification as "green."
First, a bit of background: The Federal Trade Commission published Green Guides in 1992 (and most recently revised in 2012) to help protect consumers against deceptive claims of company commitment to sustainability and environmentalism. These Green Guides established that companies must substantiate their claims with scientific facts. The latest version includes guides about third-party certification seals as well as claims about carbon offsets and renewable energy resources.
Green Web Hosting
For web hosting companies, claiming to be green meant substantiating these claims by explaining how they contribute to sustainability – either by using renewable power, recycling their hardware, ensuring the proper disposal and/or recycling of their hardware to prevent the leakage of toxic chemicals into the environment, using more energy-efficient hardware and server supplies, buying RECs or carbon offsets, or any combination of the above. The goal of the FTC was to prevent unqualified claims of a company that their services or product had general environmental benefit.
Once a web hosting company claims to use 100% renewable resources, however, it becomes more complicated.
Web Hosting Using 100% Renewable Resources
Some companies that offer green hosting claim that they use 100% (or more) renewable resources. But given the fact that operating data centers using energy from 100% renewable resources is both costly and almost logistically impossible, web companies cannot guarantee that the power sources from their data centers originate from renewable resources. As a result, the United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allow for businesses purchasing RECs to claim to be using 100% renewable energy.
The question you will need to ask yourselves as you consider different green hosting plans is: What makes your hosting plan green?
Why is using 100% Renewable Energy Important?
Green energy is energy that is produced from renewable resources; for example, solar, wind, or water. Energy from these sources does not emit any carbons, compared to regular hosting from non-renewable resources, such as coal, petroleum, natural gas and nuclear energy. Emissions of carbon dioxide by the US electric power sector alone were 1,821 million metric tons, or 35% of the total US energy-related CO2 emissions in 2016.
Many, if not most, web hosting companies recognize their contribution to the carbon footprint and strive to do their utmost to reduce it. One of the most common methods they use to reduce it is to focus on using renewable energy resources.
Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs)
As we mentioned above, most small to mid-size web hosting companies, however, do not have the resources to build infrastructure powered by 100% renewable energy. (Note that even wind or solar powered data centers may not be powered by renewable resources 100% of the time, as the electrical grid system requires a certain amount of power to be running constantly – what is called a base load. These base loads often include coal or another type of carbon-emitting non-renewable resource.)
The most common alternative method to building their own infrastructure are the purchase of RECs, or Renewable Energy Certificates. RECs match the amount of non-renewable energy being used, replacing it with the same amount or more of energy from renewable resources. Each REC accounts for one megawatt-hour of electricity.
Since electrons on the power grid are indistinguishable and it is impossible to guarantee their source of origin, RECs allow consumers to ensure that a similar amount of clean power is delivered into the power grid, even if those exact electrons don't necessarily make their way to their home. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Center for Resource Solutions (CRS) and EPA regulations allow web hosting companies to claim to use renewable energy if they purchase Renewable Energy Certificates to match or exceed their kWh usage.
This video from the US Environmental Protection Agency explains how purchasing RECs makes it possible for web hosting companies to be the owners of green energy even if they are unable to generate it themselves directly:
Jamie Opalchuk, CEO and founder of HostPapa, considered to be one of the pioneers of green hosting, explains:
“We recognized the carbon footprint of our offices, servers, and data centers and we knew how much power we consumed. We asked ourselves: Is there a way to relieve this carbon footprint burden we are putting on society? What we discovered was that there were organizations that do this, offering green energy solutions to companies by supplying Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs. These RECs fund initiatives, primarily in North America that promote and develop green energy solutions such as wind and solar power. The RECs match the power consumption that would traditionally come from carbon power sources, and put clean energy into the traditional power grid. That means for every megawatt-hour we use, we purchase a REC to match that amount with the same amount of green energy.”
Critics of RECs argue that the prices most companies are willing to pay for them aren't adequate enough to drive change or reduce carbon reductions. Even with certifications and a regulated market, the public can't tell the difference between cheap RECs and the more expensive ones, which do drive positive change. Others counter that they set the stage for greater commitment in the future.
"RECs are still currently an important tool in the big picture of renewable energy development, markets and generation. While developers do not rely on REC revenue alone to continue to develop projects, they do still compose a piece of the financial pie and an incentive to continue development towards a clean energy future," says Heather Schrock, Environmental Products Representative at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
When choosing a hosting plan that purchases RECs, it is important to ensure that their RECs are certified and verified to ensure the energy originates from a quality renewable resource and that the clean energy you bought was actually produced. We'll discuss the different certificates that verify different green hosting solutions in Section 2.
RECs are used most widely in the United States, although they are slowly being phased out in Europe and replaced with Guarantees of Origin (GOs). These GOs verify that energy is produced from renewable resources and can be traded and used across different countries in the EU.
Carbon offsetting is another green hosting program that enables greenhouse gas producers to buy a greenhouse gas reduction source – or carbon credits – from a renewable resource. Although web hosting companies that purchase carbon offsets can claim to be green, they cannot claim to be using 100% renewable energy.
"Carbon offsets are a completely different mechanism and only address carbon mitigation. You cannot make any claims regarding renewable energy if you are only purchasing carbon offsets aside from the source of the carbon offsets if they are indeed from a renewable energy project such as wind," explains Schrock.
"That said, there is no reason a business couldn't claim to be either green or eco-friendly when using carbon offsets - or RECs or any other practices that contribute to their sustainability. Claims are tricky, but ultimately, they are about transparency," Schrock adds.
In contrast with RECs, however, there is no single government standard that regulates the carbon offsetting industry. Nevertheless, the purchase of these carbon credits demonstrates that a web hosting company is dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is done through various third-party organizations which we will discuss in Section 2.
In the past, carbon offsetting gained a bad reputation for selling carbon-reduction projects that did not actually exist, even producing projects that increased greenhouse gases. Now more reputable organizations exist, with third-party regulators that provide more stringent standards for the industry. Other critics of carbon offsets, including British environmental activist George Monbiot, argue that mitigating carbon emissions allow companies to simply produce more carbon emissions, even going so far as to liken the practice to that of "buying indulgences" in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages.
Many advocates of carbon offsetting believe that it is merely one step web hosting companies must take in reducing greenhouse emissions, and should be combined with other methods such as reducing emissions and employing more energy efficient methods of running hardware or data centers. They also argue carbon offsetting is an important option for companies in developing countries to have, as it may be their only option available for reducing their carbon footprint.
Another issue with carbon offsets is "additionality." Carbon offsets are bought on the basis that without their purchase, these reductions in the carbon footprint would not have occurred. Hosting companies must ensure that the carbon offsets that they purchase meet this additionality criteria. In addition, a reputable third-party must be able to ensure that each offset is only sold once and that no "leakage" has occurred. Leakage is caused when a reduction of carbons in one region unintentionally causes an increase in another; for example, one region has a stricter emissions policy that raises costs, shifting energy production to another country.
Planting Trees, Reforestation and Forest Preservation Projects
Another method often employed for carbon offsetting is the planting of large numbers of trees. The concept of tree planting is simple: deforestation accounts for over 20% of global carbon dioxide emission, and since trees absorb carbon dioxide as well as other harmful gases, planting more trees help reduce CO2 emissions. Organizations such as Carbonfund.org allow businesses to contribute to forest conservation projects around the world which protect hundreds of thousands of acres.
To get a sense of how many trees are needed to make an impact: On average, one tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen a year and can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. “An approximate value for a 50-year-old oak forest would be 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide sequestered per acre,” says Timothy J. Fahey, professor of ecology in the department of natural resources at Cornell University. “The forest would be emitting about 22,000 pounds of oxygen.”
Critics argue, however, that planting trees as a carbon offset is not scalable. Others argue that planting trees does not contribute to the long-term reduction of greenhouse gases. Trees can also be removed easily and the number of trees needed to offset the amount of carbon emissions is often not realistic.
Forest protection and management programs also allow web hosting companies to promote sustainability while at the same time reducing carbon emissions at a lower cost. These programs address forest degradation and deforestation while at the same time contribute to carbon sequestration and water, soil and biodiversity conservation for future generations.
What Are the Different Sources of Renewable Energy?
Different natural resources are currently used as sources of renewable energy, and ability to generate electricity from these resources is constantly being improved.
Here is a quick explanation of the sources of renewable energy available:
Solar-power – Google, Facebook, and Apple have all invested in solar-powered datacenters this year. These data centers receive their power through solar panels financed through joint projects with local energy companies. Solar power has started to become more attractive as solar power prices have fallen in recent years. As a result, some companies who may have preferred to invest in wind are starting to consider investing in it more seriously.
Geo-thermal – A few geo-thermal reservoirs can be found in the western US states where there are underground sources of steam. The steam from these resources, such as the geysers in northern California and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, powers electricity for geothermal plants in the region. Google's attempts to create geothermal datacenters have been less successful than investments in solar and wind infrastructure.
Wind electricity – This source of energy for data centers is the most popular, and is responsible for allowing Google to achieve 100% of its renewable energy goals. Apple is also investing in infrastructure for wind-powered data centers. In addition to emitting fewer carbon emissions, wind sources of energy have historically been cheaper than solar energy, although solar energy prices have fallen in recent years.
In addition, there are electric sources such as hydro-electricity and natural gas, which are not considered to be 100% renewable as they do cause biological damage, but can be considered "clean" at least in comparison with coal or nuclear energy resources. Apple's data center in Princeville, Oregon, for example has been reported to be partially powered by two hydro-electrical projects that generate 12 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy per year.
Does Green Hosting Impact Cost and Performance?
Does Green Hosting Affect Hosting Impact Costs?
Companies offering green hosting as well as those using 100% renewable resources may have significant added costs. Web hosts need to foot their own electric bill in addition to purchasing RECs, which range in price from $0.50 to $12.00 a kWh depending on the source, location, and technology. Depending on which type of RECs they choose, Heather Schrock estimates that her clients may pay an additional $2500 to $13,000 annually (they purchase RECs in the $8/kWh range), which is a significant commitment compared to the size of these companies.
Any web hosting company looking to invest in infrastructure that would guarantee directly installed renewable energy sources on their facilities would need to invest significantly more.
Installation of a 30kW solar system necessary for most small- to medium-sized businesses can cost around $75,000 (as of 2016), although there are federal and state programs that give tax breaks. Installation is only part of the cost, however: A solar array for a small business runs around $200 a MWh, for example. Compare this price to the amount of energy the average datacenter may consume -- anywhere from a few kilowatts of energy to tens of megawatts (the total MWh for all of Apple's data centers combined in 2016 was 180,200), and powering websites directly via 100% renewable energy becomes quite costly.
Does Green Hosting Affect Performance in Any Way?
Since it is either prohibitively expensive or extremely logistically challenging for web hosts to use solar panels, wind turbines, or any other directly installed renewable energy sources on their facilities, the vast majority rely on purchasing RECs to be able to claim to use 100% renewable energy sources.
As a result, web hosts who offer green hosting or use 100% renewable energy sources rely on the same power sources as any other web host and are able to fully compete in performance in the hosting space.
How Do I Know I Can Trust the Web Hosting Company's Claims?
Consumers must take individual responsibility to research a web host's green hosting certifications and then decide if they are satisfied with the web host's commitment to the environment. They will need to thoroughly investigate the REC or carbon offsetting policy and its terms and policies. In addition, they may want to learn more about the web host's server maintenance or recycling policy for its server parts.
For instance, some web hosts commit to a carbon offsetting plan or purchase of RECs that buys an equivalent amount of energy tags or offsets for every carbon released into the environment, while others purchase more than an equal amount. (GreenGeeks, for instance, purchases RECs from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to use 300% renewable energy)
Here are a few recognized certificates which are highly regarded in the web hosting industry:
The Gold Standard
The Gold Standard is one of the highest standards in the world for carbon offsetting, with third-party verification. It is especially important for developing countries without emissions targets. Tree-planting projects are specifically excluded from Gold Standard verification as they are not considered a valuable contribution to renewable resources.
Green Power Partners
Being a Green Power Partner ensures that the web hosting company powers a minimum percentage of their electricity from renewable resources from United States energy plants started within the last 15 years. Web hosting companies such as iPage, GreenGeeks, Canvas Host and DreamHost are Green Power Partners with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Green-e certifications ensure that web hosting companies meet strict environmental standards, including the use of renewable energy resources and carbon offsetting. It was also the first certification program for carbon offsets on the retail market. Green-e certifications verify that carbon offsets and RECs are not double counted, that GHG reductions are verified by a third party, and that consumer disclosures are accurate. While Kualo's UK datacenter uses 100% renewable power as specified by E.ON and regulated by Ofgem, it also has Green-e certification to verify that its US power is 100% renewable energy as well.
Verified Carbon Standard
One of the most widely used voluntary GHG programs in the world, VCS helps web hosts and other organizations reduce their carbon footprint through purchasing carbon offsets. It focuses on GHG reduction only (rather than other environmental and social benefits) and ensures third-party verification. DreamHost is an example of a web hosting company with a certificate of carbon neutralization verified by VCS.
Climate Action Reserve
The Climate Action Reserve is a carbon offset registry that establishes high quality standards for carbon offset projects that include overseeing independent third-party verification bodies, issuing carbon credits generated from these projects, and then tracking them over time in a transparent manner. Its mission is to ensure integrity, transparency and financial value in the North American carbon market.
What is the Future of Green Hosting?
Research suggests that by 2020, US data center energy consumption alone will increase to 140 billion kilowatt-hours, translating to around $13bn. The good news is that the future for clean energy has never been brighter, with many experts stating that – for the first time ever – clean energy is starting to strongly compete in pricing with fossil fuels.
As for the future of green hosting and using 100% renewable resources, a standard has already been established in the industry, although it remains to be seen if one source of renewable energy will lead the way in powering data centers.
"Green hosting is the standard now. I don't believe there will be a preferred source of renewable energy. I believe that it will be a combined effort encompassing all the renewable energy sources," explains Kaumil Patel, Chief Operating Officer of GreenGeeks.
"More and more companies are starting to look at their footprint and make commitments to a more sustainable, clean energy future," explains Schrock. "Due to the high energy impact of our digital world, web hosting companies have a pivotal role to play, so it is exciting to see so many taking responsibility for their own impact. As more innovative technologies and resource models come online such as virtual PPA’s and Community Aggregation, and as prices for renewable resources continue to be more competitive with traditional energy sources, I think the movement towards renewable energy use for web hosts is simply inevitable," she adds.
A Continued Commitment to Sustainability
The web hosting community has demonstrated its continued commitment to sustainability, whether through green hosting or its use of 100% renewable resources. This commitment, combined with continuous technological advances in clean and renewable power resources, will only strengthen in the future. In the meantime, RECs (combined with other environmental commitments such as more efficient data centers, carbon offsets, and recycling projects) set the foundation and support the development of larger-scaled clean energy projects. While they may not be sufficient for the long-term, they are setting the stage for the future.