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How America’s big data centers are going green

Tech companies could substantially bolster the clean energy market.

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    Servers for data storage are seen at Advania's Thor Data Center in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland August 7, 2015.
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Data are everywhere. With the number of Internet-connected devices expected to jump to 38.5 billion worldwide in the next four years, information is increasingly important to how we live. Everyday people rely on cloud computing and data centers to store some of the most intimate details of their lives, from pictures to appointments to notes to loved ones. But all of those data centers are eating up a lot of energy. In fact, while many other industries are reducing the amount of power they use, data centers are using more each year. In 2013, data centers used around 2 percent of the overall energy demand in the United States, or around 100 billion kilowatt-hours of power, according to the Department of Energy. Some estimate that amount will grow by up to 40 percent within the next few years.

At first blush the environmental outlook of this scenario seems grim. How can a world that’s increasingly reliant on energy-hungry, fossil-fuel-run data centers also reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming?

Many of the companies running data centers say they’re committed to increasing their energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy use. In the process, they are pressuring utilities to offer more renewable energy options and adopting technologies that increase data center efficiency. As a result, data centers are becoming more and more sustainable, experts say.

“Ten years ago the focus was really on trying to improve the reliability of data centers and getting that science down. Now they are focusing more on sustainability,” says John Collins, Director of Data Centers at Eaton, a power management company.

“We see a lot of companies upgrading their lighting systems to go from traditional lighting to LED lighting, which has huge energy savings,” Mr. Collins says. “And the last couple of years there’s been a big focus on making efficiency gains and reducing the amount of wasted energy.”

Most of the power used in data centers should go towards running IT equipment, but when data centers first came online there was a lot of energy wasted. In order to gauge how energy efficient a data center is, companies use a metric called Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE). The PUE indicates the ratio of total energy consumption to the amount of energy needed for raw computing.  

Previously, a lot of power went to cooling machines that grew hot from running servers 24 hours a day. But now companies have mastered how to control temperatures by using air management technologies that separate hot and cold air streams. Reducing the amount of refrigeration and cooling fans needed allowed many companies to improve their PUE and claim maximum energy efficiency.

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Google, for example, boasts that its centers are specifically designed to use as little energy as possible. Many of those advances are due to new cooling technologies, experts say.

“It was true 10 years ago that if you wanted to keep your server cool with the lowest amount of electricity possible, the best way was to put your center somewhere really cold. But they’ve gotten good at keeping servers cold even without that,” explains David Pomerantz, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace.

Greenpeace has authored numerous studies about data center efficiency and rates companies based on how environmentally friendly their cloud computing systems are. In addition to the strides many companies are making to improve efficiency, their research identified six major cloud-computing brands that are committed to powering data centers with 100 percent renewable energy: Apple, Box, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, and Salesforce.

Because they use so much power, these companies are able to influence utilities and energy regulators and convince them to go green, Mr. Pomerantz points out.

“If you’re a utility, a data center is a dream to have in your service territory because it’s reliable. The meter is running 24 hours a day and it’s growing as those companies add more servers,” says Pomerantz. “That gives them a ton of influence that extends past power companies to governors and state legislators. Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft –  those companies have a lot of political power.”

According to Greenpeace, companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have done an admirable job of weighing in favor of renewable energy use. In North Carolina, for example, the home of many data centers, the companies successfully lobbied state legislators to maintain renewable energy portfolio standards.

Apple, a leader among the companies, already runs all of its data centers on 100 percent solar energy. And when Facebook decided to move some of its data centers to Iowa last year, it did so because the state could offer enough wind power to run the centers entirely on renewable energy, insiders say. Likewise, Microsoft opted to add solar energy to Virginia’s electrical grid and purchase wind power in Texas.

“A key part of our fight against climate change is powering our facilities with renewable energy,” Apple said in its 2015 company progress report. “We already hit a major milestone in 2014: 100 percent of the energy used by our U.S. operations — all corporate offices, retail stores, and data centers — was renewable energy.”

According to Collins, companies have a variety of incentives to make their data centers more sustainable. Moreover, these incentives are only growing as the price of renewable energy continues to drop.

“There is certainly a big financial benefit for them to become more energy efficient, to use less energy and water for their cooling systems and using less space to really maximize the resources under their control,” says Collins.

“Having a meaningful sustainability effort also enhances their reputation, and a lack of commitment can really damages their brand.”

But these incentives don’t necessarily mean that all of the country’s data centers will soon be 100 percent sustainable. The majority of the country’s 3 million data centers are still small and energy inefficient. Meanwhile, not every major company in the field earns high marks on  renewable energy. Amazon, for example, scores badly in Greenpeace’s ratings for what the environmentalist group says is a lack of transparency about its energy consumption.  

Even so, experts say the energy landscape is changing rapidly and progress is being made. Many small data centers are moving within the umbrella of larger companies, a boon for energy efficiency.  

“What Google and Microsoft are doing is convincing small companies that have eight servers in their closet that it’s cheaper and more efficient for them to shut those down and move their IT load to be with Google or Microsoft in the cloud,” says Pomerantz.

“The companies would say it’s better for the environment because they have these mega data centers that are super efficient. And they aren’t wrong.”

If these companies continue to add renewable energy to the electrical grid as their workload increases, analysts say they could substantially bolster the country’s clean energy market.

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