Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Choosing a more sustainable web host

Posted 28 Jul 2014 / 6

GardenKing-0400pxI am in the process of considering a shift in my web hosting service. I was spurred to consider a shift by Olivia Hu, a former student of mine who is also working on a new theme for this site.

My current host is Bluehost. I chose their services four years ago when I first established this site, and my choice was based on a couple of criteria: 1) Bluehost supports the WordPress Foundation, who provides me with the software required to run this site; and 2) Bluehost provided a “one-button install” of WordPress, a valuable feature when I was first getting going on this project.

As you can see, the sustainability of my web host was not on my mind. Olivia rightly pushed me on this, and as I have looked further into Bluehost’s environmental policies it appears they do not have any. There is nothing on the company’s front page that lauds their environmental commitments, and even digging a bit deeper into their site there is nothing about sustainability. In fact, if you search under “bluehost sustainability policies” or “bluehost green hosting”, none of the top 10 hits are on their site. The most information you can get is from a hard-to-verify site about a “recurring cooling system”, something that Bluehost itself does talk about on its site. In other words, Bluehost appears not to give a damn about sustainability. That is not acceptable to me.

So I have been looking for a more sustainable host. There are a number of criteria by which one might judge a web hosting service to be “sustainable”. Energy sourcing is my primary criterion, because it appears that energy consumption by servers generates the largest impact of a hosted website (there are other sources of impact, including the construction of hosting facilities, the manufacture and disposal of servers, and other practices of the business that provides web-hosting services; another on-going project I want to complete is a more comprehensive assessment of what is known about these impacts). The servers that make web hosting happen demand a lot of energy, not just to deliver information via the worldwide web but also to keep the environment (a “server farm”) cool.

It is very hard — and probably pretty pointless — to say that “the energy powering my website came from a windmill (or solar panel or hydroelectric plant)”. This is because electricity runs on a grid that pulls from a variety of sources, some of which provide more or less power at various times. If it is nighttime in the locale where your site is hosted, it is unlikely that solar panels generated the electricity to deliver one of your pages to a user (regardless of whether it is night or day in that user’s locale!). So if you want to get energy from renewable sources, what you need to do is to assure that enough electricity is coming into the grid to compensate for your energy use. This is done through the purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs); purchasing these credits is a way of saying “I will pay the cost of electricity generated through renewables means”. Whether or not you actually consume the energy produced by these sources is not so important.

My household purchases wind energy credits for our home electricity through Green Mountain Energy, who brokers these credits with Con Edison, the power company that delivers electricity in New York City. By getting my electricity this way, I can assure that 100% of the electricity I consume is being sourced into the grid by wind power. Web hosting companies use a similar method to assure that all the electricity that they use to power their servers is offset by wind farms. Some companies go further than this by buying more RECs than required by their energy consumption. By purchasing credits above 100% of their use, a web hosting company is not just assuring that wind power provides electricity sufficient to offset the consumption of their servers: they are also assuring that some of the electricity devoted to other uses is also produced in a sustainable means. Purchasing RECs above 100% is one way a web hosting company can offset other impacts, although quantifying how extra sustainable energy production offsets other activities is not simple.

Energy sourcing is about the only quantified number that most hosting services can point to in terms of their sustainability. Other practices — such as allowing employees to work remotely — clearly reduce impact, but by how much is hard to figure out. For this reason it is hard to assess other claims of sustainability that web hosts may make.

Below is a table that I have composed based on information provided by a variety of hosts claiming to be “green” or “sustainable”:

Web Host Sustainable Energy Crediting Certification Remote Workforce? Nod to Sustainable Workplace?
AISO 100% ? More than a nod
A Small Orange 150% 3Degrees “Many”
DreamHost 100% TheGreenOffice Yes
FatCow 200% Community Energy Yes
GreenGeeks 300% ? Yes Yes
HostGator 130% 3Degrees
HostPapa 100% Green-e

I wish it were so simple as to be able to read these numbers off of each company’s website and confidently go with the company the appears to be the most green. But the problem is that the “certification” that these numbers are correct is far from transparent. Although several of the companies listed above do use 3Degrees — a renewable energy and carbon offsets provider — as their certifier, 3Degrees does not actually make public (in any way that I could find) what they have certified and how it was certified. So for example, you can look at HostGator’s renewable energy certificate here, but that is only because they provided it. We do not know how 3Degrees certified this crediting (and, incidentally, we do not know if HostGator has continued to purchase credits since 2010!).  I can confirm that A Small Orange partners with 3Degrees, but not how. A site called TheGreenOffice certifies DreamHost‘s carbon neutralization efforts in a more transparent manner, but again we do not have a clear sense of “who watches the certifiers” and how to be sure that these credits are real. As a consumer, lack of transparency creates a dilemma in trying to choose a green host.

There are even a few hosts, such as AISO, that claim to provide their own power sources. In the case of AISO, they provide a myriad of details on the technologies they use to reduce their impacts. Other companies do not provide this information, so it is safe to assume that they do not take the same sustainable steps. Here you have some positives and negatives to deal with as you assess the sustainability of AISO: on the one hand they seem to have a lot of great practices, but on the other hand it is not entirely clear how to compare the steps they have taken with other hosts. What is more important, offsetting electricity consumption by 300%, or having a totally sustainable on-site infrastructure?

Of course sustainability is not the only consideration when choosing a web hosting company. What services they offer, how reliable those services are, and how expensive a hosting package will be all play an additional role in the decision. While I am definitely going to go with a host that at least reduces its reliance on non-renewable energy, I also need one that I can afford and that will serve me well. I will update this post when I make decision and change my host.

Interested in what choice I made? Check out this post.

A Major Post, Resource Consumption, Sustainability, Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Web Design, Web

6 Comments to "Choosing a more sustainable web host"

Justine 10th February 2015 at 6:48 am

I am just beginning to search for a sustainable web host for my (hopefully) sustainable business, I am really pleased I read your post first.I am finding it useful as a guide for appropriate questions to consider and ask.I believe it will save me a lot of time and a big headache,thank you.

Ron 20th November 2015 at 9:45 pm

I have been looking at sustainable hosting and agree it is really hard to compare each site. Also, determining the quality of the service- uptime, customer service, etc.. Is difficult . Your post has been helpful.
Thank you.

Michelle 1st December 2016 at 10:44 am

Dear Chris, Loved your blog post about the sustainable webhosting. Did you ever decide on a hosting company? I am currently looking into it and am faced with similar dilemmas, what is verifiable, what type of energy offset and how much, as well as comparing their customer service and price…daunting taks. Thank you for your post, it was good to know that other people out there have similar challenges

Chris Jensen 1st December 2016 at 12:48 pm

Hi Michelle,
The information used to make this decision is a couple of years old and to honest I have not “re-verified” my choice, but I went with A Small Orange.
You can read about my choice here.

Michelle 1st December 2016 at 4:25 pm

So good to read about your reasoning. I am sure in the near future we will not have to compromise between best customer service as well as greatest sustainability commitments. For now, we will take the best of what is available 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

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