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Data Centers Set to Outpace Airlines in GHG Emissions

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A new study released last week by McKinsey & Company claims that the emissions by data centers -- the hidden banks of servers and electronic storage devices behind everything from your email, to eBay to, well, this blog -- currently account for .3% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. By 2020, those emissions are poised to quadruple; by 2050, data centers will have outpaced the airline industry in their GHG emissions.

The growth of power consumption in this area is staggering. According to Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which serves much of the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley, demand for power from data centers in its region was between 50 and 75 megawatts a year and a half ago. Today, it's between 400 and 500 megawatts.

This means a possible energy shortage for data centers. According to a survey by the Uptime Institute, a research and advisory organization for data center users that released the study with McKinsey, 42 % of 311 data center managers surveyed said their datacenters would exceed power capacity within 12 to 24 months unless they carried out expansion.

However, the cause for the rapid increase in emissions isn't merely a result of increased usage, but of consistent inefficiency at current data centers.

As reported in the McKinsey study, data centers are being used far below capacity. Servers are being used at around 6% of their capacity, while the facilities are used at only 56% of their performance potential. The NY Times blog Bits described it well when it said, "In other words, if data centers were hotels, they would be bankrupt and shut down instead of growing like kudzu."

And there's no question - they are growing like kudzu. HP is spending $1 billion to convert 85 worldwide data centers into six US sites each at 50,000 square feet. Wachovia has just invested $400 million in a data center in Birmingham, Alabama. Citibank is in the process of investing $735 million dollars in data centers around the world. Facebook is investing $200 million, Microsoft $500 million, and Google another $600 million.

These investments are coming at a time when electricity prices are increasing. As a comment made by Brian Brouillette, vice president and general manager, HP Data Center Services, on the WSJ blog, reads: "With the price of electricity rising in some areas more than others, increased data center power costs can be compared to the rising cost of gasoline to run our vehicles. HP's research has found about 42 cents on the dollar each month goes to the electricity company and those costs are continuing to increase."

Given these concerns, McKinsey makes a few recommendations:
  • Corporations should set the goal of doubling the efficiency of their data centers by 2012.
  • Corporations should set an industry-wide standard metric. Think miles per gallon, or fuel efficiency, for data centers.
  • As well as 10 "game-changing" recommendations that focus on improving efficiency as the best near-term solution for reducing green house gas emissions. These include solutions like virtualization and improved air-flow.

The good news is that the solutions are, in comparison to the airline industry, simple. Data centers are not like the airline industry, where change comes in slow increments, and where reducing emissions will rely on developing new fuel technologies. Despite the concentrated efforts from the likes of Richard Branson to develop fuels that reduce airline emissions, some airlines are pursuing fuels from tar sands extraction, even in the face of serious environmental concerns. (See this excellent On Earth story for more on tar sands; and part I & part II on airline for the airline industry.)

As McKinsey argues, it would be cheaper, and more efficient, to invest in improving the efficiency of existing sites, rather than building new ones. Kenneth G. Brill, founder and executive director of Uptime Institute, said: "It clearly makes more sense to become more efficient than to build another $100 million data center." Brian Brouillette supported this with his comment, saying, "We're seeing companies saving 10 - 50% in electricity spend by optimizing their data center layout and airflow patterns."

It's likely that this will not merely be a regulatory issue, but a governmental issue as well. While emissions from data centers will surpass the airline industry, they already have outpaced the emissions from countries Argentina, the Netherlands and Malaysia. Meanwhile, public utilities such as Seattle City Light and BC Hydro, have jumped into the issue, offering incentives for companies to install network efficiency infrastructure and software.

From my perspective -- though, I admit, I'm no expert in the field of data centers and market transformation -- this is in an example where self-interest drives smart-investments, not a need for regulatory intervention.

And yet, data centers continue to put a strain on our public utilities, and, as this study makes clear, on the global environment, simply because they have not yet taken advantage of efficiency opportunities within their existing infrastructure. And so we may need the government to work with business to give them incentives to significantly improve their efficiency after all. If they do, let's hope it's part of a larger market transformation.

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Ben Carmichael has been a regular contributor since the fall of 2006. He writes about the environment, food and fishing. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media, and Print magazine. He has worked on ... READ MORE >