When Amazon Web Services, a division of online retailer Amazon, announced in July its involvement in North Carolina’s first major wind farm, the company stated the power would be used for its data centers in Northern Virginia, but the centers will continue to purchase electricity entirely from Dominion Virginia Power, the public utility that currently supplies the Amazon data centers.
While AWS has agreed to buy all the power from the 208-megawatt wind farm being built and operated in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties by Iberdrola Renewables, the power will be connected to the grid locally and cannot be plugged into the data centers, which are 200 miles away.
Dominion Power spokesman Dan Genest confirmed to Carolina Journal that Dominion is not involved in any arrangement giving AWS credit on its power usage at its Virginia data centers for electricity that is generated by the Amazon Wind Farm in North Carolina. Instead, the wind farm will be connected to a grid operated by PJM Interconnection, a regional transmission organization, allowing AWS to resell the power.
“This venture by Amazon does not involve us,” Genest told CJ. Amazon is allowed to have “a wind farm [built] for them that will provide energy directly onto the … grid system,” he added. “Sorry I cannot be of more help, but this is not our project.”
The centers will continue to operate with the same mix of fuel types that power other Dominion customers; in 2013, that mix was 41 percent nuclear, 37 percent coal, and 20 percent natural gas. Renewables including solar, wind, hydro, and biomass constituted the remaining 2 percent.
“Amazon is one of many companies making misleading claims about how their facilities and operations are powered,” said Travis Fisher, an economist with the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research in Washington, D.C. “These companies are connected to the grid, which receives 86 percent of its power from coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Wind and solar power are expensive and unreliable energy sources and can’t be counted on to supply on-demand electricity. That’s why these sources require costly mandates and subsidies to prop them up. It’s fortunate for Amazon’s customers that they’re connected to reliable sources of electricity and aren’t subject to wind energy’s fickle output.”
Amazon’s contention that the wind farm will make its data center operations “green” also may run afoul of Federal Trade Commission guidelines governing the use of such claims in corporate promotions. “It is deceptive to misrepresent, directly or by implication, that a product or package is made with renewable energy or that a service uses renewable energy,” the FTC’s Green Guides state. (See related story here.)
Amazon not talking
CJ attempted to discuss the wind farm project with Amazon’s Global Communications operations manager Mary Camarata, who asked for written questions. Among the questions CJ submitted include: How much power is currently consumed at the Virginia data centers? How much would AWS be paying Iberdrola for power? And, what is the net cost to AWS for the project?
“We don’t disclose that level of detail. Sorry,” Camarata responded.
The environmental organization Greenpeace called out Amazon in an April 2014 report about electricity consumption at large data centers. “Among the major cloud providers, only Amazon refuses to provide any details on the energy performance and environmental impact associated with its operations,” stated the report.
In November 2014, seven months after the Greenpeace report, AWS announced a “commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage for the global AWS infrastructure footprint,” according to the company’s website.
“As of April 2015, approximately 25 percent of the power consumed by our global infrastructure comes from renewable energy sources. By the end of 2016, we intend to reach 40 percent,” states the website. The AWS website also states that a wind farm in Indiana, a solar farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and the North Carolina project will be completed by the end of 2016.
Others repeat Amazon claim
After the N.C. project was announced in July, Amazon’s statements about its “commitment” to renewables spread when other organizations repeated the claim that the wind farm will supply the data center or centers.
“The power generated by the wind farm, enough to power more than 61,000 U.S. homes, will be supplied exclusively to an Amazon data center,” stated a July press release from Gamesa, the wind turbine manufacturer that will produce 104 turbines for the project.
“The Amazon Wind Farm U.S. East, to be built in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties, will power the online retailer’s cloud-computing division, Amazon Web Services, as part of a corporate goal of achieving energy sustainability,” wrote The News & Observer of Raleigh.
“Amazon Web Services, itself a multibillion-dollar enterprise, plans to hit a target of 40 percent renewable usage before 2017, a milestone toward its goal of one day operating solely on renewable power,” wrote the Daily Advance of Elizabeth City.
“The project is expected to open in December 2016 when it will supply power to Amazon Web Service data centers,” wrote Bloomberg Business.
Amazon’s project is part of a national push to power data centers with renewable energy sources. The online news source Data Center Knowledge summed up the situation after the project was announced: “It has become common practice for operators of data centers at Amazon’s scale to invest in renewable energy projects on utility grids that supply their facilities. Since environmentalists started drawing public attention to the fact that the ubiquitous ‘cloud’ is powered mostly by coal, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and now also Amazon followed Google’s lead in making huge investments in clean-energy supply.”
IER, which analyzes the global energy market, also has studied renewable energy claims.
In March, IER’s Fisher published an analysis titled “Busting the ‘100 Percent Renewable’ Myth.” Fisher, a former intern with the John Locke Foundation, spent seven years as an economist with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before joining IER.
“Many companies such as Apple and Google claim that they get their electricity from 100 percent renewable sources. At best, this claim is misleading and deceptive. We cannot find a single instance of a large company actually going ‘100 percent renewable.’ The reality is that as long as these companies are connected to the electric grid, they still get the vast majority of their electricity from conventional sources such as coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, and are therefore not 100 percent renewable,” wrote Fisher.
(See the report here.)
Iberdrola Renewables LLC is the U.S. division of corporate parent Iberdrola, a multinational energy company headquartered in Spain. The first phase of the Amazon Wind Farm will comprise 104 turbines, each with a 2 MW capacity, nearly 500 feet tall including the blades. The company may add as many as 46 additional turbines later.
The turbines will be spread over about 20,000 acres in Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, west of Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina.
Iberdrola Renewables’ effort to develop a wind farm at this location began in 2009. The project came to a halt in late 2011 when three public utilities — Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, and Progress Energy — said they would not purchase power from the facility because the rates Iberdrola would charge would be too high.
While the maximum output of the wind farm is 208 MW, that amount of power will be available only when the wind is blowing from between 9 mph and 23 mph, based on technical data from the turbine manufacturer. Wind speeds outside those ranges causes the output to drop significantly.
Iberdrola estimates the annual output of the wind farm to be 670,000 MW hours, which it says will power more than 61,000 homes for one year (10,983 kilowatt-hours per home). Since there are 8,760 hours in a year, a facility operating at 100-percent capacity would generate 1,822,080 MWh. Because the wind is variable, the company thus expects the wind farm to operate at 37 percent of capacity (1,822,080 divided by 670,000).
PJM Interconnection is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or part of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The North Carolina area is limited to the northeastern portion of the state and is served by Dominion Power, electrical cooperatives, and municipal utilities in the region.
PJM’s members include more than 900 companies involved in the generation and transmission of electricity, serving 61 million people in those states, according to its website.
PJM, Iberdrola, and Dominion Power in July 2012 signed an interconnection service agreement — required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — outlining the details of how electricity will be connected to the PJM through transmission lines owned by Dominion. Federal law requires Dominion to cooperate with companies that want to generate electricity and sell it.
Greenpeace’s mission statement says the organization “is openly opposed to nuclear, coal and natural gas as sources for electricity generation.” It released a report in April 2014 titled “Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet.” The report noted the explosive growth in the use of the Internet and the significant amount of electricity required to run the data centers that support it.
“Clicking Clean” notes that a 2012 Greenpeace report — “How Clean is Your Cloud?” — concluded that many companies were continuing to rely on “dirty” energy to operate data centers. Greenpeace claims that publicity resulting from the report led a number of companies to commit to use 100 percent renewable energy to operate their data centers.
Amazon received an “F” grade in the 2012 report’s sections on energy transparency, infrastructure and siting, and renewables and advocacy.
The 2014 report stated that “Amazon’s adoption of a 100 percent renewable energy goal, while potentially significant, lacks basic transparency and, unlike similar commitments from Apple, Facebook, or Google, does not yet appear to be guiding Amazon’s investment decisions toward renewable energy and away from coal.”
In the more recent report, Amazon received another “F” grade for energy transparency, a “C” for renewable energy commitment and siting, and a “D” for renewable energy deployment and advocacy. Meantime, Apple, Facebook, and Google, which have data centers in North Carolina, received “A” or “B” grades in all those categories.
While half of the Amazon Wind Farm project will be in Perquimans County, area residents have expressed concerns about another wind farm project. On Oct. 5, The Perquimans County Board of Commissioners approved a temporary moratorium on large-scale wind energy facilities. County Manager Frank Heath told CJ the purpose of the moratorium was to allow the planning board to receive citizen comments and review the existing ordinance that governs wind facilities. Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va., is considering the construction of a 300 MW project to be named Timbermill Wind that would be located in Perquimans and Chowan counties.
D.C. to get N.C. solar?
In June 2014, George Washington University, American University, and George Washington University Hospital announced a renewable energy project named Capital Partners Solar Project “that brings solar power from North Carolina to the D.C. institutions, showing that large organizations in an urban setting can meet energy needs while significantly reducing their carbon footprints by directly tapping offsite solar energy,” a press release from George Washington University stated.
The solar project, comprising three solar installations, is being constructed and operated by Duke Energy even though it is located outside Duke’s North Carolina service area. One location is complete and the other two are scheduled for completion by the end of the year. Duke has an agreement to put the power on the PJM grid. The three sites are in Pasquotank County, east of Elizabeth City, not far from the Amazon Wind Farm.
The total generating capacity of the solar project is 52 MW and the total annual output is expected to be 123,000 MWh, enough to power more than 8,200 homes for one year (15,000 KWh per home). Operating at a 100 percent capacity, the project would generate 455,520 MWh. So Capital Partners expects the solar project to operate at full capacity 27 percent of the time (455,520 divided by 123,000).
Under the agreement, GWU will receive approximately 86,000 MWh, AU will receive 30,000 MWh, and GWU Hospital will receive approximately 6,300 MWh. That would be enough to provide half of GWU’s and AU’s electricity demand and more than a third of the hospital’s needs.
But those claims may be deceptive, as the institutions will continue to receive power from their current supplier using a mix of conventional and renewable sources. Because Washington, D.C., is a deregulated electricity market, the institutions will get credit on their electric bills for megawatt-hours generated in North Carolina and actually added to the PJM grid.
None of this will be done in real time and none of the institutions could operate on a power source that was at capacity roughly 27 percent of the time.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.