Data Centers Debated

Posted by | October 5, 2012

The digital age allows many of us to send emails instantly, shop online, and store documents in “the cloud.”  But the demands of our digital consumption are powered by large data centers that process information requests and store large amounts of data, all with an environmental impact.  A recent series in the New York Times argues that the environmental and social impacts of cloud computing and the demands of data centers “is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.”

The first article in the series titled “Power, Pollution and the Internet” largely exposes the energy demands and associated pollution responsible to maintain and deliver instant satisfaction in the electronic age.

A data center is a facility used to house computer systems, usually many computer servers.  The facilities are typically spread over a large area to accommodate cooling requirements needed to maintain operational temperatures within the facilities.  Data centers aim to be operational 100% of the time so as not to cause outages for customers.  As a result, the servers within data centers gobble up energy regardless of whether they are processing information or waiting on standby.  According to the article, worldwide data centers use about 30 billion watts of electricity, which is roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants.  They can also waste up to 90% or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, due to low utilization rates of the servers.

In addition, the article highlights the use of backup diesel generators that data centers rely upon in order to limit the amount of downtime from potential power failures or a lapse in grid energy.  The author states that at least a dozen major data centers have been cited for violations of air quality regulations in Virginia and Illinois alone.  Even if a data center does not need to rely on a generator for operational power, generators still have to be tested on a regular basis to ensure functionality. In the second article in the series, the author focuses on a data center in Washington State that has 40 diesel generators located near an elementary school.  The scale of the backup operation was enough to convince the school superintendent to install particulate monitors to observe emission readings.

Industry reaction to the series of articles has been loud and swift.  Some argue the author has an outdated perception of the Internet, and chose to focus on minor uses such as emailing pictures to friends, versus focusing on how it serves a larger good by powering businesses, schools, public works, and the media.  Another primary criticism of the series is the failure to recognize the gains in data center energy efficiency since their inception.  Efforts such as The Green Grid have worked to establish baseline information on the power usage effectiveness of data centers and the water footprint of cooling efforts.  In addition, the 2012 Carbon Disclosure Project directly asks about companies’ data center activities, including specific emissions, annual electricity consumption, and power usage effectiveness of company owned data centers.  In our view, data monitoring, increasing transparency, and industry knowledge sharing is key to improving the environmental profile of data centers.

When evaluating companies operating large data centers, we prefer companies that are members of The Green Grid, actively upgrade facilities to reduce energy demands, purchase renewable energy, and report on the combined power usage effectiveness of their data centers globally.  Finally, companies that share best practices with their peers will help improve the energy efficiency of data centers across sectors and countries.


Emily is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments.  She has 10 years of experience in the environmental field.

Post categories: energy, global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, regulations, water

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