Amazon Cloud Gets a Little Greener with Indiana Wind Farm Deal

on January 20, 2015 at 3:17 PM

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Under pressure from greens, Amazon Web Services – the online retail giant’s market-leading cloud business – is moving to clean up its carbon act. AWS on Tuesday announced it would buy power under a 13-year contract from a wind farm that Pattern Energy will build in Indiana. The way some companies pay to get stadiums named after them, the 150-megawatt project will bear the name “Amazon Web Services Wind Farm (Fowler Ridge).”

This is the kind of renewable energy move that climate hawks like to see from big players like Amazon.

“The key is additionality,” Greenpeace senior energy campaigner David Pomerantz said in an interview. Companies sometimes paper over their carbon footprint by purchasing unbundled renewable energy credits, which don’t have the same ability to bring new green energy onto the grid. “In those situations, they could be buying wind power from a 15-year-old wind farm in Texas,” Pomerantz said. “The PPA is definitely a much more high-impact way to buy renewables.”

Last April, AWS was scorched in a Greenpeace report on major company efforts to provide energy-intensive Internet-related services with minimal carbon emissions. It received “F” grades in three of four categories – Transparency; Renewable Energy Commitment & Infrastructure Siting; and Renewable Energy Use & Advocacy. Its other grade, in Energy Efficiency & Mitigation Strategy, wasn’t much better: D.

amazon greenpeace graphic2

Source: Greepeace

But in November Amazon posted on its website that it had “a long-term commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable energy usage” – joining, among others, Apple, Google and Facebook in that mission.

Greenpeace called the Indiana wind deal a “good first step” for Amazon, but said it was looking for greater transparency from the company, which claims to be carbon neutral with its cloud infrastructure in several regions, but doesn’t detail how it pulls that off.

Amazon’s Indiana wind-farm-to-be is actually the fourth phase in the Fowler Ridge Wind Farm, on farmland in Benton County, along the Illinois state line about 100 miles south of Chicago. The existing three phases, consisting of 335 turbines with a capacity of 600 megawatts, were developed several years ago with BP Alternative Energy as a primary owner. In 2013, BP decided to unload its wind development portfolio, and Pattern bought what was then known as Fowler Ridge IV.

Fowler Ridge had run into some trouble early in its operation. In 2009 and 2010, a couple of dead Myotis sodalis carcasses were found amid the turbines. That was a big deal because the Indian bat, as it is commonly known, was on the first list of endangered species ever issued by the United States government, way back in 1966. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, by 2009 the bat’s population had fallen by at least half, to 387,000.

Early last year, after a long process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an incidental take permit to Fowler Ridge, including the planned fourth phase. It’s basically an acknowledgment that some bats will be killed at the wind farm, but requires the operators take various measures “to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects to the Indiana bat.”

Those measures include special operating procedures from August through mid-October, the bat’s fall migration season. During that period, the turbines won’t spin unless the wind blows at 11.2 mph or greater. Fowler Ridge’s owners will also restore and permanently protect 240 acres of Indiana bat summer habitat, and provide a new gate for a bat cave in Crawford County, Indiana.

Amazon said its wind farm is “expected to start generating approximately 500,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of wind power annually as early as January 2016.” That would work out to a capacity factor of 38 percent – well above the 27-29 percent capacity factors that the existing Fowler Ridge turbines operated at from 2010 through 2013, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

Because phase four at Fowler Ridge has been planned for years, it’s possible enough work has already been done to qualify it for the lucrative but now-expired Production Tax Credit. The PTC provides 2.3 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy generated for ten years. Wind farms meeting the complicated IRS definition of under construction before the end of 2013 qualify. We asked Pattern if Amazon Web Services Wind Farm (Fowler Ridge) was qualified, but hadn’t yet heard back.