How Legit is “Green” Hosting?

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Data centers are massive contributors to carbon emissions. The amount of power necessary to maintain and cool a single operation is massive. This is because they need to be maintained according to a set of strict standards. Precise temperatures, humidity levels, dust levels, redundant fire safety mechanisms, and security, just to name a few. As a result, worldwide, they consume more electricity than all of Britain! A consequence of this is their impact on climate change.

Taking cognizance of this, many vendors aim to assuage their customers’ guilt by promising to be “green”. The most well-known of these is GreenGeeks, who claim to offset the carbon emissions they generate by 300%! In my article on GreenGeeks’ coupon codes and prices, I explained how this works. But how legit is it really? Does it really help carbon emissions? Let’s see.

Impossible to Build a Truly “Green” Data Center

Most web hosts don’t own their own data centers. The vast majority of them are leased, and a few others are resellers for existing hosting companies. Only the largest providers like Hostgator, SiteGround, Liquid Web are able to own their data centers. As a result, it’s not possible for web hosts to directly make their operations “green”. They don’t own the infrastructure!

And in the cases where they do own it, it’s often too expensive to make it “green”. That would require a complete redesign, a different choice of location to minimize cooling costs, and a direct powerline from renewable sources. As of today, I’m not aware of a single hosting provider who’s actually managed to build a data center like this.

One reason is that renewable energy is unreliable and is unsuitable as a source for extremely low fault-tolerance operations like data centers. They need to be backed up with a more traditional source of energy – usually fossil fuels, and if you’re lucky, hydropower.

“Green” Hosting via Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)

In the face of the above reality, web hosting companies try and supplement their operations with something called RECs – Renewable Energy Credits. These are essentially investments into renewable energy sources like wind energy. A single certificate represents 1000 kWh of energy from renewable projects.

So when GreenGeeks says that it purchases 300% of the energy that it consumes from wind farms, it means that they are investing (nominally) in wind infrastructure that generates that much amount of energy.

But RECs are Not Carbon Offsets

The term “carbon offsets” has been used to describe RECs, but this is not accurate. By definition, a carbon offset results in reduced or eliminated emissions. An REC at best, is an investment into building renewable energy infrastructure that may or may not have been built regardless of the purchase of the REC.

In fact, due to the unreliable nature of wind energy, these farms need to be constantly backed up with an “on-demand” energy source like natural gas. These energy sources need to run constantly even if they’re not actively generating power, and thus produce carbon emissions. Unless the backup source is hydroelectric power, the creation of more windfarms subsidized by RECs might actually increase carbon emissions!

The InMotion LA Datacenter has Low Cooling

One web host that has genuinely lower carbon emissions is InMotion, with its data center in Los Angeles. The center tries to lower is cooling costs by venting the air to the outside environment instead of using air-conditioners. Of course, the ACs are still used if the venting doesn’t work. But nonetheless, they’ve managed to cut their emissions by up to 70% from this datacenter (according to them), and I feel this is a more honest way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s my full review of InMotion hosting, along with the prices, discounts, etc.

But it’s Not Complete Bullshit

While it’s true that RECs are not exactly carbon offsets, and they don’t really lower or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, that doesn’t mean they’re useless. Any REC ultimately means an increase in the capacity of renewable energy generation, and that’s got to count for something right? At the very least it’s better than not having an REC.

So while companies like GreenGeeks and Hostgator might overstate their environmental benefits and the impact they’re having on the climate, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. These companies are at least trying. They are making some kind of difference. And if the marketing spiel is a bit misleading, I can forgive them for that. These are businesses after all.

So some kind of green hosting is better than no green hosting at all. It’s just important to know exactly what you’re getting!

About Bhagwad Park

I've been writing about web hosting and WordPress tutorials since 2008. I also create tutorials on Linux server administration, and have a ton of experience with web hosting products. Contact me via e-mail!

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