Is your web host carbon neutral? Does it matter?

tigertechdot.gifMichael Blaha at Organic Arts told me last week that my favorite web hosting company, Tiger Technologies, is carbon neutral. See their environmental policy for more.

Here’s a defintion of Carbon offset from Wikipedia:

A carbon offset is a service that tries to reduce the net carbon emissions of individuals or organizations indirectly, through proxies who reduce their emissions and/or increase their absorption of greenhouse gases. A wide variety of offset actions are available; tree planting is the most common. Renewable energy and energy conservation offsets are also popular, including emissions trading credits.

The intended goal of carbon offsets is to combat global warming. The appeal of becoming “carbon neutral” has contributed to the growth of voluntary offsets, which often are a more cost-effective alternative to reducing one’s own fossil-fuel consumption. However, the actual amount of carbon reduction (if any) from an offset project is difficult to measure, largely unregulated, and vulnerable to misrepresentation.

Attach a comment if you know of other web hosts doing this or if you have doubts about the efficacy of carbon-offsetting.

30 thoughts on “Is your web host carbon neutral? Does it matter?”

  1. I saw Richard Sandor speak about this idea down here at OU a few years ago. He’s part of the Chicago Climate Exchange, which is an economic market where you can buy and sell the right to put carbon in the atmosphere. It’s a pretty interesting idea, and creates an economic incentive for businesses to reduce emissions.

    Unfortunately, programs like this are voluntary, and don’t attract the attention of the biggest polluters. There was a company that sold portions of these carbon shares to individuals to make their cars carbon neutral. Initially they targeted the owners of SUV’s, but it turned out that SUV drivers didn’t really care about carbon emissions. Surprisingly, the best market was for small, fuel efficient vehicles. If I remember correctly, it was something like $35 to buy the sticker that proudly proclaims that the gas coming out of the exhaust was harmless.

    OU boasts that they were the first public university to join this group. I know St. Olaf and Carleton are both pretty hip when it comes to environmental issues – do either of them participate in such programs?

    To answer the original question, my web host doesn’t have an environmental policy (that I can find), and no, it doesn’t bother me.

  2. Sean wrote:

    Speaking of hosting companies and energy, I was just looking at 1&1 Internet’s tour of their new data center — in which they boast that the servers in each of their data centers consume “as much electricity as 20,000 households.”

    Curt says:

    …or as much electricity as 1,000 households, assuming the households were Al Gores’.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6401489.stm

  3. I still like Tiger Tech’s approach. They donate cash to the Carbon Fund:

    Each year, we contribute enough to the Carbonfund.org renewable energy program to offset more than 65 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent to over 107,000 kWh of renewable electricity.

    Carbonfund.org uses the money to fund zero-emission wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass renewable energy programs, either through direct investments or through renewable energy certificates (aka “green tags”). The projects are certified by Environmental Resources Trust or Green-e.

    These contributions make our business “carbon neutral”, meaning that we offset (reduce) more CO2 than we produce. It also means that through our efforts, more renewable electricity is pumped into the electric “grid” than we use (even though our servers still receive their actual power from the standard reliable electricity grid).

    Couldn’t any organization do this, even Carleton or St. Olaf… or even Al Gore, Inc?

  4. Sorry Griff, but that approach is B.S. It’s like saying you make up for bludgeoning kittens to death by breeding more kittens.

    In fact, I remember reading an article (yes, yet another Slate link) last summer about a similar idea — only for everyday consumers called TerraPass. Equally ridiculous, IMO.

    If you’re going to be “carbon neutral,” I say that means you get your energy through sustainable means — not subsidize somebody else doing so.

  5. Well, it’s definitely better than nothing, but I don’t like the idea of presenting it as carbon neutral — when I hear “carbon neutral” I really think “0 carbon impact.”

    Maybe if they just said they donate an equivalent amount to an environmental charity for the nonrenewable energy they consume.

  6. Speaking of Al Gore, he’s speaking at OU (University of Oklahoma, where I’m stuck for another year) tomorrow. I’ll post another comment if he has any response regarding his energy use.

  7. A self-interested comment here. I’m the person at Tiger Technologies who started the carbon neutral program.

    Sean’s comment about bludgeoning kittens is an amusing and clever argument, but there’s a fundamental difference: unlike kittens, every molecule of carbon dioxide (and every electron of electricity) is identical. Paying money that makes it cost-effective for another company to build wind plants to eliminate 65 tons a year of CO2 really *is* pretty much the same thing as shoving solar panels on our roof and generating the power ourselves. In either case, 107,000 kWh of clean power is generated and 65 tons of CO2 isn’t pumped into the sky.

    (With carbonfund.org, you can choose whether they spend your money funding renewable energy projects, or reforestation, or other things: since we can’t eliminate our electricity usage, we’ve chosen renewable energy projects that generate clean electricity, which are mostly wind turbine projects.)

    I was initially skeptical of it, too, because it’s a tough idea to get your head around if you aren’t an economist. I spent a lot of time researching it, though, and I can honestly say “the electricity we use has zero carbon impact”, because the money we pay CarbonFund is being used to generate as much renewable power as we use (more, actually).

    Yep, we’re getting there the long way ’round — it offends my sense of efficiency to not simply stick solar panels on our office roof (I like gadgets and would love to go out and look at them the few times it’s sunny around here, and watch the electricity meter spin backwards) — but that method would also be indirect, because most of our power usage happens miles away from our offices in a data center we don’t own and which we have no control over, power-wise. We’d still only be offsetting usage in one place by generating excess clean power in another.

    Our company is going to use the electricity no matter what, so the only way to be carbon neutral is to generate enough clean electricity to compensate. A system like carbonfund.org is more practical than the alternatives.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks for an interesting discussion!

  8. Nick, I wonder if Gore won’t make a visit to the National Weather Center today.

    I think his speech today at OU may be his first since all the negative stories came out this week regarding his personal energy usage, while finger wagging at the rest of us. I’m certain he’ll be compelled to respond in some way. ( Googles show hundreds of references to this story. Leno ridiculed him last night.)

  9. Hey Robert, delighted to have the owner of Tiger Technologies chiming in here… uninvited! (You must be using Technorati or using Google Alerts to keep an eye out, eh?)

    I’d not heard of webhosts doing this but after Michael Blaha at Organic Arts pointed out your carbon neutral page to me, I see he’s become an affiliate of Sustainable Websites.

    So has this become a competitive advantage for you and might it be a trend?

    [For people who might not know, we here at Locally Grown, our colleagues at Northfield.org, and many other Northfield area websites are hosted at TigerTech. See my blog post from last summer for my reasons. ]

  10. (You must be using Technorati or using Google Alerts to keep an eye out, eh?)

    Yep, I use Google Alerts to monitor the Internet for calumnies or praise 🙂 Very handy.

    So has this become a competitive advantage for you and might it be a trend?

    Well, we’ve been doing it for about six months now, and so far we haven’t had any new customers tell us they signed up as a result. This actually surprises me a little, although it’s possible/likely that people just don’t mention it, of course.

    We’d actually break even on it financially if it increased our new customer signup rate by about 2%. I suppose it’s possible that’s happening, but I can’t really tell. It certainly hasn’t led to an onrushing horde of new customers.

    I’m fine doing it as a “sign of personal virtue”, though, as Dick Cheney would put it. The amount of non-clean electricity we use was really bothering me: my family and I are pretty energy-frugal, but the business was using much more than a household. This allows me to feel better about it, if nothing else (I also use carbonfund.org to offset personal energy usage).

    Whether it’s a trend or not is is hard to say. I’m aware of several other companies doing it, and they weren’t doing it two years ago, so I suppose it must be! But it doesn’t seem widespread yet.

  11. All this picking on Gore bugs me. It’s like we are saying: “Let’s pick on Gore instead of facing facts about how we are destroying our world.” Never mind our grandkids and the weather/lack of resources/world in general… as long as we can pick on Gore! YEP! STUPID!

    AND– Robert L. Mathews. Can I get next month free just by saying I blogged in the same place you did?

    Carbon Neutral. Now if I only had a few extra dollars to donate. What am I talking about– we would have to donate a lot of money out here. Our electric bill is $400 a month (approximate). Hmm.

    We did install radiant heating and so when we aded on and doubled our house we didn’t raise our heating bill AT ALL– still not carbon neutral, though. SHAMED.

  12. Holly, it looks like Nick Coleman agrees with you about Al Gore:
    http://www.startribune.com/357/story/1031848.html

    “Gore, by the way, offsets his fossil-fuel use by paying extra for renewable energy credits.”

    Also in today’s Strib:

    Gander Mountain Co. is goosing its efforts to go green by committing to buy all of the electricity it uses in five states from renewable sources.

    The retailer of hunting, fishing and other outdoors products said it will buy renewable energy credits from Renewable Choice Energy to offset all of the 17 million kilowatt hours it uses in its stores…

  13. Holly wrote:

    Carbon Neutral. Now if I only had a few extra dollars to donate. What am I talking about– we would have to donate a lot of money out here. Our electric bill is $400 a month (approximate). Hmm.

    I didn’t think this was how it worked, ie, total up one’s energy expenses and then donate that amount. Can someone provide more insight on this?

  14. Hi Griff,

    My point was that we use a lot of resources just to run our house and to be carbon neutral by donating to someone else who is energy efficient, we’d have to pay out a lot… Our house = No solar, no wind, etc.

    Well, good– maybe someone can explain this carbon neutral thing better to me. Be kind and nice about it as you explain and I’ll be ever so grateful.

    As far as our resource consumption, I was looking into it today at
    http://www.dakotaelectric.com/fuelsrce.asp

    and it sounds like we could help to fund more wind energy production (and the building of more turbines) by calling Dakota Electric and asking to be a Wellspring member…800.874.3409–
    http://www.dakotaelectric.com/PDF/1106fuelsource.pdf

    But, back to the original thought I had– we can barely afford the sometimes $400.00 a month for our bill… yowza.

  15. I think the idea of purchasing energy absolution via carbon offsets is a very odd idea.

    Say you are a smoker. You know you should quit or at least cut down. But instead of doing so, you give money to the American Cancer Society so they can increase their education programs to get others to quit smoking. Odd indeed.

  16. Another Snopes.com article notes:
    “…
    A spokesman for the Gore family responded by noting some mitigating factors, such as the fact that the Gores’ Nashville residence isn’t an “average house — it’s about four times larger than the average new American home built in 2006, and it essentially functions as both a residence and a business office since both Al and Tipper work out of their home. The _Tennessean_ also noted that the Gores had been paying a $432 per month premium on their monthly electricity bills in order to obtain some of their electricity form “green” sources (i.e., solar or other renewable energy sources). Other factors (such as the climate in the area where the home is located and its size) make the Gore home’s energy usage comparable to that of other homes in the same area.”

    “The former vice-president mainatined that comparing raw energy usage figures is misleading and that he leads what he advocates, a “carbon-neutral lifestyle,” by purchasing energy from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and methane gas to balance out the carbon emissions produced in generating the electricity his home uses.”

    It goes on to say the Gores are installing solar panels….

    Source:
    http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/gorehome.asp

    But maybe we can’t trust Gore when he says he’s installing solar panels. I haven’t seen ’em. And he’s a politician, after all. How do we know he offsets his carbon footprint? He’s a liberal, so maybe he’s being liberal with the facts? Who knows.

    And you remember what he said about inventing the internet….

    While Bush may have a “greener” home in many ways, I wonder what the carbon footprint is for the war in Iraq? Is the President paying a premium to his electric company to offset his wartime carbon footprint? Maybe.

    There’s also a “depleted uranium footprint” that Bush has left in Iraq. Is Bush cleaning up as much of it as he’s leaving behind? Maybe.

    Or maybe the Bush’s donate a lot of money to cure the diseases DU causes, like those poor deformed infants. Maybe they’re offsetting their DU footprint? Who can tell?

    Maybe only the Bushs’ accountant knows….

    Then there’s a “terrorism footprint”; many analysts in the intelligence community seem to believe Bush is inspiring more terrorists than he’s catching or killing….

    But maybe Bush funded orphanages and hospitals in Bagdad, Fallujah and Nasiriyah? Burn units? There are more US wounded than killed in Iraq, so some of the unreported statistics include wounded or maimed civilian survivors. But maybe there’s a grass-roots base of support for Bush that’s growing in Islamic countries? After all, Bush is religious, and he doesn’t drink anymore. They’ve got to love the guy for that.

    Maybe after Abu Ghraib, Bush contributes to the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis? (www.cvt.org). Offset his torture footprint? (And it would be good for the MN economy….)

    I dunno. D’ya think it’s a draw? Gore loses for his electric bill, but Bush loses for enough other stuff that it all evens out?

    The war is very expensive, but he’s trying to keep our taxes down and spread out the payments over many generations, which I *sure do appreciate*! I’d hate to have to pay for it all up front!

    Was that smart, or what?

    That probably outweighs all the bad stuff right there.

    So we should conclude that Bush understands his “footprint” in the larger sceme of things much better than Gore, and therefore Gore is the bigger hypocrite.

    It’s a no-brainer. D’ya think?

  17. Paul, following your logic, if you haven’t started a war in Iraq, you have an exemption to use twenty times the energy as the average household. Does this exemption apply to everyone, or just very special people, like Gore? Who gets to decide who the very special people are?

    If you believe Gore’s message you should be embarrassed for him. His hypocrisy diminishes his impact.

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”–George Orwell, from Animal Farm.

  18. Holly: Thanks for the link to the “G-Wiz” car. If one were “off the grid” and could recharge the thing from solar or wind, think how low our carbon footprint would be.

    Curt: Great quote from Orwell. And regarding the logic, I s’pose it depends how you interpret, or read into, my logic. I think you’re off by just a bit.

    The logic of reducing one’s “carbon footprint” involves buying things that offset the carbon one creates, so applying that logic, if Gore is offsetting his own footprint (planting trees, investing in renewable energy, etc.), then if he can bring his carbon footprint down to zero, good for him.

    If his electric bill is 20X that of mine (and does some of this involve the premium he pays for investing in renewables through his electric company? I don’t know), then as long as he brings his footprint down to zero, he’s ahead of me.

    If Bush can do the same (while starting carbon-intensive wars), then good for him too. That’s fair.

    Now if I was making a joke (black humor) about Bush and offsetting his footprint, it’s always hard to apply the logic of a joke in the manner you describe.

    For one thing, the logic of jokes moves out like ripples in a pond, and anyone who gets the joke benefits, no matter how high your energy bill. Jokes are never about, and do not confer, rights to over-consume; they’re about the jujitsu of humor, even black humor.

    So it’s not about Gore having the right to a higher energy bill. But it is about those who get the joke (and any willing others) having the right to work for the end of certain injustices that it seems one can sometimes only joke about (darkly).

    If you apply the Orwell quote to Bush, he’s more equal than most of us. But if you apply it to the joke, those who get the joke are more equal than the rest. Sad but true, that’s the logic of humor.

    That’s the way I see and intended the logic, but I kind of like your reading too, in a way. You were being perhaps too literal and serious, and I think your logic was a little flawed as far as the carbon-offset logic goes as described above.

    If your point is to go after any former US head of state whose electric bill is higher than the average American, I s’pose this is a two-edged sword that might be hard on Republicans too. But then they’re not calling for the mitigation of global warming, so they’re not hypocrites–just indifferent, or in denial. Which is OK if it works for them. It’s a free country. As long as their indifference and denial don’t hurt others. There’s the rub.

    But if your point is to discredit Gore at any cost, then it works in a Rush Limbaugh/Anne Coulter kind of logic (which tends to favor entertainment and lemming value over substance, but often works. Coulter as cheerleader sometimes resorts to her own brand of black humor).

    Have you read Coulter’s book about the Godless liberals, which includes that great, headline-worthy claim about the Jersey Girls being happy when their husbands were killed on 9-11? (Conservative black humor at its highest, or lowest, depending on your POV.) Coulter has a novel grasp of logic as a malleable (like moral relativism) art. For neo-cons who are Machiavellian at heart, and also for liberals trying to get a handle on the cultural Zeitgeist, I highly recommend her.

  19. Maybe after Abu Ghraib, Bush contributes to the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis? (www.cvt.org). Offset his torture footprint? (And it would be good for the MN economy….)

    That was one of the most hilariously terrible things I’ve ever read. Kudos.

    Somebody out the calculate the amount of energy that’s been used discussing Gore’s hypocrisy so he can buy some carbon credits to cover it.

  20. Griff and Holly:
    Griff wrote,
    “I didn’t think this was how it worked, ie, total up one’s energy expenses and then donate that amount. Can someone provide more insight on this?”

    It’s not a dollar-to-dollar calculation, but has to do with how much carbon is created to generate the electricity you use (if you’re talking just about home electricity). Between 40% and 41% of our electricity comes from coal, one of the larger causes of increased carbon in the atmosphere. Say you invest in a wind turbine that creates as much electricity per year as you consume in a year (or your percent investment in the turbine, times the total output, equals your electricity use). Then you’ve offset your footprint, supposedly.

    Or if you’re into planting trees, how many trees do you have to plant to offset the carbon created by your energy use? These calculations (especially in trees) are not an exact science.

    It isn’t without its problems, as the Strib article Griff cites says:
    “Some fear the trend will increase checkbook environmentalism without lifestyle changes.”
    ….
    “No laws exist to hold suppliers of carbon offsets accountable for their claims, and there’s even some disagreement about what qualifies as a legitimate offset.”

    Or from Sean’s “Limousine Liberal” article by Krauthammer:

    “In other words, the rich reduce their carbon output by not one ounce. But drawing on the hundreds of millions of net worth in the Kodak Theatre, they pull out lunch money to buy ecological indulgences. The last time the selling of pardons was prevalent–in a predecessor religion to environmentalism called Christianity–Martin Luther lost his temper and launched the Reformation.”

    “A very few of the very rich have some awareness of the emptiness–if not the medieval corruption–of ransoming one’s sins.”

    For now, most of Gore’s critics are not calling for reducing consumption and lowering “carbon output.” It would be bad for the economy, and as Dick Cheney made clear after 9-11, “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

    Gore’s critics, and the frequent citing of them by conservatives and ditto-heads, is more about discrediting Gore than it is about saving the planet. His critics often have little in common: Some admit global warming is a problem and human-caused; others don’t. Some say the costs of mitigation would be too high (“economic castration” according to one); some say the costs of doing nothing would be far higher. Some say the whole global warming thing is a hoax, and that Gore is simply a communist trying to destroy the economy and America; others say he is doing this to profit from a green company he owns. (So what is he, a communist/socialist, or a capitalist positioning himself to make money off of his stock?)

    The main thing, for now, that Gore’s critics have in common is that they’re being cited by folks who want to discredit him and keep free enterprise free. Don’t impose carbon-taxes. Don’t raise taxes to invest in renewable energy infrastructure, and transforming our economy from oil- and coal-dependence to renewables, because, as MN Senator Neuville claims, “the cost” would be worse, and more expensive than “the disease.” Or so the right-wingers say. Their method of citing Gore critics is like using a sawed-off shotgun. The critics they cite are all over the place, and often contradict each other. But for now, at least they’re against Gore. Which is the point.

    In terms of logic, it’s a huge distraction from the science:
    – Regardless of his personal flight miles or electric bills, are Gore’s claims mostly based on good science, or not?
    – Do most climatologists (or at least those whose research was peer-reviewed) agree that global warming is human-caused?
    – Is the peer-review process valid, or just a way of imposing a liberal tyrany of the majority, and silencing minority voices?

    The fact that so many conservatives are talking about Gore’s home electric bills might hint at the possibility that key conservatives are scared that Gore, hypocrite or not, may be right, and that it may mean a loss of profits in the short-term to address the environmental problem in the long-term. Like an addict wanting to delay going in for treatment as long as possible.

    Many of the free-market critics of the global warming movement don’t consider how local, renewable energy could be a huge boost to local economies: Minnesota gets most of its oil, coal and natural gas from out of state, or from other countries. Once you invest in the infrastructure, you eventually get a huge return on your investment. As business owners know, sometimes you have to spend some money to make more money. Small businesses should be supporting the movement toward renewables,

    But the major movers behind the Gore critics, for now, are the big oil, energy and coal concerns, many conservative media commentators, and some on Wall Street, which will long prefer the tradable stocks over the locally-grown renewable start-ups. Until Exon, GE and the average energy company has a large percentage of their investment in renewable energy, I think we’ll see a well-financed and hard-fought campaign to resist global warming mitigation. Conservative talk-show hosts, blogs like Powerline, and email lists from groups like the Heartland Institute will be sending out their sage advice, keeping their folks skeptical of global warming research, and advocating “free-market solutions” only.

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