For federal agencies, migrating to the cloud offers new speed, scalability, and flexibility. But there's another important reason for moving to the cloud – it enables more energy efficient, environmentally friendly IT infrastructure.

This is important, as President Biden’s Administration has named climate issues a core priority, with a goal to put the United States on a path toward “net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”

Demand for data has significant environmental impacts. Global data center electricity consumption is almost equal to the annual consumption of the country of Spain, notes Accenture’s recent report “The green behind the cloud.”

The report further shows that a broad public cloud migration could potentially reduce global CO2 emissions by 59 million tons per year. That’s a 5.9 percent reduction in total IT emissions, equivalent to taking 22 million cars off the road. Cloud’s approach to power and cooling can reduce CO2 by up to 20 percent versus a conventional data center, while hardware efficiency can drive 10- to 15 percent reductions, and more efficient compute utilization can shave 35 to 45 percent off the CO2 impact.

 

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5.9% 

Potential reduction in total IT emissions globally with a broad public cloud migration. 

20% 

Reduction in CO2 power and cooling emissions with cloud compared to a conventional data center. 

 

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And a green mindset pays off – the research finds that commercial organizations with higher environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance see nearly 5x higher operating margins.

While federal agencies are generally not measured by profit and loss, we can expect greater scrutiny of their environmental impact. By thoughtfully planning their cloud migration and collaborating with sustainably oriented partners, agencies can build a greener enterprise while simplifying operations and reducing costs.

Opportunity in green cloud regulation

Past efforts to regulate and report on federal IT energy efficiency varied in complexity and detail. With clean energy a renewed priority, we have an opportunity to step back and evaluate the best way to demonstrate progress. 

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Greening government: ICT and digital services strategy 2020-2025 is a comprehensive approach to sustainability addressing both carbon emissions and electronic waste. Via procurement standards, it mandates newstandards for government technology projects, including: 

  • 100 percent use of renewable and/or carbon neutral energy sources
  • Ban on technology waste being landfilled
  • Greater transparency across supply chains, including full traceability for end-of-life IT 
  • Continuous increases in the use of recycled or remanufactured resources

Annual reporting keeps the spotlight on their efforts.

A recently published European Union study, Energy-efficient Cloud Computing Technologies and Policies for an Eco-friendly Cloud Market, looked at the role that green public procurement (GPP) policies can play. It found that “…there is still a high untapped potential for GPP to deliver energy-efficient cloud services. Especially the growing demand for digital services in the public sector should be used as a momentum to promote the inclusion of GPP criteria at the national level and their implementation at the regional level.”

Cloud service providers are moving the needle on sustainability  

Key to this equation are the public cloud service providers (CSPs) working with federal agencies to enable their cloud transformation.

Most CSPs are already taking bold strides toward sustainability and energy efficiency. Google and Microsoft are ranked first and second on thEPA’s top 100 partners for green power use. Across the sector, these efforts include:

  • Setting carbon neutral or carbon negative corporate goals  
  • Emphasizing the source of electricity, the renewable power mix, and the cloud provider’s support for developing new renewable generation sources rather than purchasing carbon offsets 
  • Directly matching energy usage with 100% renewable energy purchases 
    • For example, Amazon Web Services “purchases and retires environmental attributes, like Renewable Energy Credits and Guarantees of Origin, to cover the non-renewable energy” used in several regions, including GovCloud US-West. 
  • Committing to the most energy efficient underlying infrastructure, including optimized network and servers, smart construction, state-of-the-art cooling, etc. 
  • Building circular value chains for hardware 
    • Oracle uses take-back programs to “recover, reuse, and recycle returned equipment.”  

Given these efforts, IDC recently concluded in research similar to Accenture’s that continued adoption of “cloud computing could eliminate a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over the next four years, and possibly more.” The firm notes the dramatic differences in efficiency between enterprise data centers with an average power usage effective (PUE) rating of 2.8 and leading CSPs that operate at PUEs in the 1.1 – 1.3 range.  

Agencies can investigate which green cloud practices their partners are using and to what extent to understand how federal government can further commit to sustainability. 

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Agencies can investigate which green cloud practices their partners are using and to what extent to understand how federal government can further commit to sustainability.

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All of these considerations must be looked at through the lens of what services are available for the more regulated and sensitive environments federal agencies require, though. If CSPs accelerate the availability of federal services in line with the most advanced commercial technologies, they can more quickly reduce emissions while opening doors to new, innovative projects and capabilities.

A strategic approach to cloud migration is key

Typically, getting agencies into the cloud faster is a positive for reducing emissions. But without a well-defined strategy, efforts can be counterintuitive. For example, by not allowing legacy data center equipment to get to its end of life, the environmental impacts of creating the hardware may negate the sustainability benefits of migrating to the cloud.

Agencies should take a long-term, strategic approach to a green cloud migration. Accenture’s report identifies three ambition levels on the journey to a greener cloud, transitioning from basic lift-and-shifts through building cloud-native architectures and deployments: 

  • Bronze: Shifting enterprise-owned computing to the cloud 
  • Silver: Applying sustainable software engineering practices 
  • Gold: Optimizing software applications for the cloud

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Agencies can take advantage of significant carbon reductions at each of these stages. But they must also understand how to strategically retire legacy systems to ultimately create a net benefit.

Going forward, agencies and CSPs will be making sustainability a bigger part of their conversations as they chart federal cloud migrations. With deep CSP partnerships, and collaborative ties to federal IT, I am grateful to be part of a team that is uniquely situated to help move those conversations forward. 

Together, we can explore how to build a greener cloud as federal IT continues its journey toward a more robust, scalable, efficient, and cost-effective architecture.

Thank you to my colleagues Alex Bansleben, Dave McClure, Larry Socher, and Bryan Walter for sharing their expertise for this post.

Christopher Copeland

Chief Technology Officer – Accenture Federal Services

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