Making Greenhost even greener

Chris Snijder

Published on: February 22, 2018 10:33

Since Greenhost was founded we have made as many "green" choices as possible. We started by working together with EvoSwitch, continued by buying second hand furniture and developed a shared hosting environment that is extra energy efficient. But at Greenhost we do not only want to be greener than the other companies. We want to be as sustainable a company as we can be!

That is why we have created a permanent team of employees that will dedicate themselves to keep the "Green" in "Greenhost. We have identified the following as important next steps:

  • Yearly reporting of our energy usage
  • Yearly reporting of our greenhouse gas footprint
  • We want to improve and open source our "procurement policy": the document that describes how we choose our suppliers

We believe that public reporting is a good first step. On one hand it will force us to look into our usage every year and keep us on our toes. On the other hand it will enable you, our partners and clients, to notify us if you see something odd. To reach our sustainability team you can send an e-mail to sustainability@greenhost.net.

One of these notifications came a while ago from a blog post about sustainable web hosting, zaailingen did some digging into the sustainability of different data centres. They found out that EvoSwitch, one of the data centres whose services we use, was offering something they called "sjoemelstroom" (deceptive electricity, the Dutch term relates to Volkswagen's dieselgate: sjoemeldiesels).

Hemweg Coal plant
Coal plant (CC-BY-SA 4.0 – Chris Snijder)

"Sjoemelstroom" explained

Recently, Zondag met Lubach, a Dutch television program, made a special explaining some of the problems in the electricity market. If you are not up for reading detailed explanations, you can watch their satirical summary with English subtitles on YouTube.

The grid

For starters, physically there is only one electricity grid. All electricity is distributed over that grid, regardless of whether it was produced by burning coal, or by wind turbines. Because there is only one grid, it's not like there is a sustainable electricity cable and a fossil fuel electricity cable you can choose from. Selecting a sustainable energy supplier means you are investing your money in a company that has to produce or acquire the amount of sustainable energy that you are using.

The GO market

The energy market is international and a lot of energy that is sold as "sustainable" in the Netherlands, is not actually generated in the Netherlands. A lot of supposedly "sustainable electricity" comes from hydroelectric power stations in Scandinavian countries, like Norway. However the actual electricity generated in Norway will never reach electrical sockets in the Netherlands.

First of all because internationally, the grids of countries are mostly not interconnected.

Secondly, because "transporting" electricity incurs losses. It would not be economical to transport it that far over a cable.

Thirdly, the grid is not like the internet, it's not a switched network. It is impossible to send electricity from a specific source to a specific target.

For these reasons there are "GOs", short for "Guarantees of Origin", and there is an international market of GOs. GOs describe an amount of energy and the conditions under which it was generated. GOs identify the "sustainable" in "sustainable energy". The idea is that the electricity GOs describe can only be consumed once, so if you as a supplier generate 1 GWh (GigaWatt hour) of energy, you can sell the electricity. And apart from that you can sell the right to call 1 GWh of energy "green" on the GO market. There are a couple of important aspects to realise about this:

  • As an energy consumer you can now buy sustainable energy even if the nearest sustainable source is very far away.
  • Consumers of energy that don't have fossil fuel based power plants anywhere nearby (e.g. Norwegian consumers) may assume their energy is always sustainable, while with GOs that statement no longer holds true.
  • This means that confusion can arise about what source your energy actually comes from: a physical nearby source, or actual GOs. This allows the market to sell sustainable energy twice as long as they do not formally state it twice. For example, there are Dutch companies that buy Scandinavian GOs to offset the fact they are burning coal in the Netherlands. They sell that to their customers as "sustainable energy". On the other hand, some Norwegians may think they are using sustainable energy, while in some other country coal is being burned on their behalf!
  • As long as fossil fuel based power plants are in operation, unsustainable energy will be produced, even if everyone in that region buys GOs of renewable energy.

Unfortunately we have to conclude that GO's increase the cost of sustainable energy. GOs can't make fossil based power plants less profitable because it imposes no cost on fossil fuel sources. This means this system will not help us end fossil fuel based electricity.

Wind turbine
Wind turbine (CC-BY-SA 4.0 – Chris Snijder)

So how can we get legitimate sustainable energy?

We have a few general pointers on getting legitimate sustainable energy.

  • Make sure your energy is generated locally, there are often initiatives that for example invest in putting solar panels on large buildings in your neighbourhood. For local initiatives in the Netherlands see Hier opgewekt.
  • If there are no local initiatives in your neighbourhood, only buy from companies that use GOs from your country.
  • It is important to know that your supplier is investing exclusively in sustainable initiatives. Merely reselling GOs is not helping our planet! Try not to invest in companies that also supply or invest in fossil fuel based energy sources.
  • Check that the supplier is not just selling a surplus. For example, invest in a supplier that promises to install new windmills for new customers to ensure the sustainable energy market keeps growing.
  • Try to only buy solar and wind energy. Especially here in the Netherlands, hydroelectricity is almost non-existent, but even if you have a hydro plant near you, there are still several downsides to it. Then there's biomass generators, which are generally considered "sustainable". The Dutch television program Rambam found out that euthanised calves are considered biomass. Furthermore, part of the biomass is made up from wood that was cut from US forests and shipped to the Netherlands. Lastly, while burning biomass, generators still emit greenhouse gasses. Contrarily, for solar and wind energy, greenhouse gasses are only emitted during panel or wild mill creation.

Luckily you do not have to do all this checking yourself. If you live in the Netherlands you can consult the energy comparison tool that is published by WISE Nederland. If you do not live in the Netherlands there is probably an alternative available that does the same thing.

It is also worth noting that consumers are becoming more and more aware of the importance of sustainably produced electricity. An emerging trend we have observed is that some companies branch off their fossil fuel based production to a new company name. They make it appear they have become 100% sustainable but continue to sell their fossil fuel based energy to businesses and governments that often prioritize cost efficiency over sustainability. WISE gives those producers a lower score.

Greenhost's electricity usage

The majority of our electricity is consumed in the data centre (EvoSwitch) and in our office.

Data centre

After inquiry from Zaailingen, we found out that at that point in time, EvoSwitch's energy mix was 5% wind energy and 95% hydroelectric energy, so that was most probably 95% "sjoemelstroom".

Since then, together with EvoSwitch, we have been looking for a solution to this problem. Now we are happy to say that we found one! We have arranged that from the start of this year all our electricity comes from Dutch wind energy. Starting from 2019, EvoSwitch will only invest in European wind energy, but they will keep buying Dutch GOs for our energy usage.

So what about the electricity we have used in the last two years? Our servers and infrastructure in the data centre have used a total of 144 MWh of electricity in 2016 and 2017. To make up for the "sjoemelstroom" used, we have bought 144MWh of Dutch wind GOs.

Office

As you might have seen in a recent blog post, we have moved to a new office. There are solar panels on the rooftop of the building and we have an energy contract with Pure Energie. Pure energie only invests in Dutch wind and solar energy and is rated 10/10 by Wise Nederland.

Patch 22
Patch 22 (CC-BY-SA 4.0 – Chris Snijder)

Electric energy is of course not the only thing that makes us sustainable. We are constantly investigating new ways in which we can become more sustainable. These are the things we have done recently:

  • We have switched to vegetarian lunches. Factory farming is among the worst causes for climate change. All ingredients are organic.
  • We try to source locally, no sense in shipping vegetables from the other side of the world to our office if they are also available a bike-ride away.
  • Our new office is fully equipped with LED lighting. The floor is made of bamboo, which is considered one of the most sustainable alternatives to wood.
  • For other stuff we buy (ranging from the lunch to equipment in the data centre) we try to select brands and companies that, like us, focus on doing business sustainably and take human rights into account. Later this year, we will do a blog post on our "procurement policy".
  • Most of our employees go to work by bike or public transport.
  • We involve ourselves in Sustainability projects like Greening The Cloud
  • Try to acquire second hand if possible. Don't worry, we have state-of-the-art equipment in the data centres (in part because they consume less energy)! But does it really matter that our couch had a previous owner? We don't think so!

Further reading

We have based a lot of the information in this post on these sources.