Smart Buildings

Data Centers: What is The True Energy Cost of Energy Efficiency?

Sensors and other forms of data collection stream information from almost every imaginable source to the cloud. There, data is stored, filtered, crunched and analyzed to create energy optimization and actionable energy intelligence, among other things, to accelerate us into a greener, cleaner world. However, the cloud is not a virtual space in the metaphorical sky where our information floats around waiting to be analyzed. It is made up of heavy industrial facilities, “information factories,” which have become some of the largest energy consumers in the world. The Range International Information Hub in Langfang, China, is the world’s largest data center. At 6.3 million square feet, it is roughly the size of the Pentagon, or 110 football pitches. It consumes as much energy as a small city and it is just the tip of an iceberg of mega data centers around the world. In the US, which hosts approximately 40% of the world’s data center […]

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Sensors and other forms of data collection stream information from almost every imaginable source to the cloud. There, data is stored, filtered, crunched and analyzed to create energy optimization and actionable energy intelligence, among other things, to accelerate us into a greener, cleaner world.

However, the cloud is not a virtual space in the metaphorical sky where our information floats around waiting to be analyzed. It is made up of heavy industrial facilities, “information factories,” which have become some of the largest energy consumers in the world.

The Range International Information Hub in Langfang, China, is the world’s largest data center. At 6.3 million square feet, it is roughly the size of the Pentagon, or 110 football pitches. It consumes as much energy as a small city and it is just the tip of an iceberg of mega data centers around the world.

In the US, which hosts approximately 40% of the world’s data center servers, it is estimated that server farms consume around 3% of total national power supply. Apple’s $1bn ‘iDataCenter’ in North Carolina is estimated to require as much 100MW of power, equivalent to about 80,000 US homes or 250,000 EU homes.

The combined electricity demand of the internet/cloud, including data centers and telecommunications networks around the world is 623bn kWh, which would rank 5th in energy consumption if it were a country. Based on current projections, that energy demand will more than triple to 1,973bn kWh, an amount greater than the combined total demands of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil, according to a Greenpeace report.

According to a Technavio report, the global mega data center market is expected to exceed $14 billion by 2019 growing at a CAGR of over 7%. “It is expected that 60% of the planet will be connected to the Internet by 2020, with a cumulative generation of 40 ZB or more of data, which will be stored and managed through data centers,” says Rakesh Panda, a lead analyst at Technavio for data center research.

Dig a bit deeper and you realize that data center locations like Langfang and North Carolina, from the examples above, are there for access to cheap coal for power generation. So many of the clean, shiny new data centers at the heart of our data driven energy efficiency revolution are, ironically and in no uncertain terms, extremely heavy polluters.

So what is really going on, why do data centers use so much energy? In short, the answer is ‘cooling’. A data center is essentially a massive room full of computers and therefore generates a huge amount of heat. This heat is, in turn, the greatest threat to a data centers servers and so cooling is essential for the protection and proper functioning of equipment.

The 1.1 million square foot Lakeside Technology Center, a multi-tenant data center hub owned by Digital Realty Trust, is supported by an 8.5 million gallon tank of a refrigerated brine-like liquid for cooling. The building also includes 50 generators, which are fueled by multiple 30,000 gallon tanks of diesel fuel.

Energy aside, data center water usage alone is of huge environmental concern in a world increasingly short of potable water. Even a relatively small 200,000 square foot data center would use up to 30,000,000 gallons of water a month, and that’s with industry leading water efficiency.

The huge, short-lived, batteries used in data centers need an extensive disposal process; coolant liquids, often Freon / halocarbon or chlorofluorocarbons, are highly toxic; cleaning and dust removal solutions often contain toxic bleach, ammonia, or chlorine; electronic equipment and its packaging need proper disposal; even fire suppression systems can include harmful chemicals. The technology at the center of energy optimization for a greener world could also to be a leading culprit of environmental damage.

It is not all doom and gloom on the environmental side of data centers however. In addition to the energy efficiency gains from the big data analyses that data centers facilitate, the operations themselves are making some fairly significant efforts to be greener.

Google has spent over a billion dollars on renewable energy, Microsoft recycles 99% of waste in its European data centers, and Facebook aims to run its facilities on wind and hydroelectric power in the future. There have even been suggestions of underwater data centers using the surrounding sea as a zero-energy cooling mechanism.

As is usually the way in our business world, much of this is for a public relations show or in reaction to environmental regulation, and even a company with honest green ambitions cannot ignore the vast cost savings offered by coal. Nor would we expect them to. Environmentally responsible business is a wonderful thought but not a replacement for environmentally sound policy and regulation.

Furthermore, our ability to measure the environmental performance of data centers is shrouded in mystery due to the limitations of industry-adopted metrics like power-usage effectiveness (PUE). PUE only explains the efficiency of data centre infrastructure relative to energy demand, but not the overall resource impact or even the amount of energy needed for a particular computing activity. Such metrics act as a fog hiding the true environmental cost of cloud computing.

In the words of Bill Wheil, Google Energy Czar, at the March 2011 – Climate One Forum on Cloud Computing: “We are not going to solve the climate problem via efficiency – we must move to cleaner sources of energy.”

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