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Amazon to buy solar energy for its cloud

June 10, 2015, 4:03 PM UTC
Amazon Unveils Its First Smartphone founder and CEO Jeff Bezos presents the company's first smartphone, the Fire Phone, on June 18, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.
Photograph by David Ryder — Getty Images

A week after Amazon’s cloud customers asked the company to use more clean energy to power its data centers, Amazon announced on Wednesday that it will be buying energy from a solar farm that will be built in Virginia.

The solar project will be called “Amazon Solar Farm U.S. East, ” and, when built next year, will produce 80 megawatts worth of energy. A large data center could consume anywhere between 40 and 100 megawatts.

Virginia is a pretty unusual place for a solar farm — only 15 megawatts of solar panels are currently installed in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. For comparison, California has over 10 gigawatts of solar (1,000 megawatts equal a gigawatt).

But Virginia is where Amazon has many of its data centers. It’s estimated that the Northern part of Virginia is home to over half of the servers that Amazon uses for its Amazon Web Services cloud.

The largest power company in Virginia is Dominion Resources and much of its energy comes from coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Dominion recently started testing a clean energy program, which would sell clean energy to customers that would pay extra for it. But Greenpeace noted in a recent report that Dominion’s clean energy program lacks customers because of the higher cost and limited amount of clean energy available.

Construction At The Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center South Project
Photograph by Sam Hodgson — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amazon will be buying the solar power from Community Energy through a deal called a power purchase agreement. Community Energy will build and operate the farm and Amazon will buy the energy over the course of a probable 15 to 25 years.

Amazon has gotten a lot of attention for not adopting clean power for its data centers more swiftly, or in a more transparent way. Google, Apple, and Facebook embraced clean energy years earlier and more aggressively. Instead, Amazon largely pointed to the energy efficiency of its cloud infrastructure.

Because Amazon’s AWS cloud is so large and dominates the market, its adoption of clean energy would have a much larger effect on all the web companies that rely on it. It has large customers like Netflix, Pinterest, Tumblr and Upworthy.

In recent weeks Amazon’s customers have started to become more vocal that some of them want clean energy to power their services. First Netflix wrote a blog post about it, and then 19 AWS customers wrote a letter to Amazon asking the company to be more transparent about its energy consumption.

In the past year Amazon has started to move on clean energy. The company made an overall pledge to commit to 100 percent clean energy for AWS, and a goal to hit 40 percent clean energy for AWS by 2016. This solar farm is part of this commitment.