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With $20bn a year being spent on new data storage, the IT sector’s ballooning carbon footprint is of growing concern. Mike Scott looks at the firms leading the way on greener data centres
Think of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and power stations, huge industrial facilities and chemical works come to mind.
The IT sector, in contrast, is associated with minimalist clean lines and cutting-edge apps. Even its factories are famously pristine, controlled environments with the few people that are there wandering around in head-to-toe white body suits.
Many of the latest digital advances sound inconsequential and nebulous – cyberspace, the cloud – and they have allowed many industries to "dematerialize" their products, such as books, CDs and DVDs, so that they now exist chiefly online.
The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species
Further progress is promised by technologies including the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and blockchain. As a result, most people think that the digital economy is inherently environmentally friendly because of its huge potential to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
But this digital construct has physical foundations in power-hungry data centres, and digital’s astonishing growth in recent years has seen it quietly become one of the biggest energy consumers of any sector. “The internet will likely be the largest single thing we build as a species,” says Greenpeace, which calculates that the IT sector already consumes 7% of the world’s electricity.
According to tech firm Cisco, the sector’s power use is set to increase massively as the number of connected devices – everything from refrigerators to driverless electric cars to buildings, as well as the ubiquitous smartphone – increases. There are currently 8 billion connected devices, a figure expected to rise to 50 billion by 2020, with internet traffic set to triple in the next five years. More than $20bn a year is being spent on building new data storage facilities and the sector’s energy consumption and carbon footprint are becoming a serious concern.
“Every time we go on the internet, use social media, log on to our internet bank or screen something from Netflix, a process starts in a data centre,” says Fredrik Jansson, chief strategy officer at DigiPlex, a data centre operator based in the Nordic region. “If that data centre is using power from a coal-fired station and is not energy-efficient, then you as a consumer become an environmental problem, and you have no idea.”
This lack of transparency is a big part of the challenge. In a survey for DigiPlex of 300 senior executives across Scandinavia, 60% of respondents could not even say for sure in which country their data was being stored. “Traditionally, when you buy data centre services you do so as part of an IT services outsourcing package. The first thing that companies need to do is really look into where their data sits and how their data centre operates,” Jansson says.
That’s because it’s clear that when it comes to energy consumption, not all data centres are equal. The largest concentration of data centres in the world is in northern Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington DC, where power costs are just one third of those in California. Virginia gets just 3% of its energy from renewable sources, although about a third comes from nuclear power. However, many data centres in Asia are powered by coal-fired electricity, giving them a significant carbon footprint.
Netflix alone accounts for over one-third of internet traffic in North America and is in the midst of a worldwide expansion
There is good news: some of the sector’s biggest companies, such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, have committed to source 100% of their electricity from renewable power. Indeed, the sector has been responsible for driving corporate purchasing of clean power in other sectors as well.
At last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, a coalition of 21 tech companies announced a partnership with Christiana Figueres’ Mission 2020 to harness technology to help reduce emissions across all economic sectors, starting with their own. Led by CRM company Salesforce, the coalition includes Autodesk, BT, Cisco, HP and Uber. (see 'We need everyone in tech to sign up to 100% renewables') .
However such leadership on cutting CO2 emissions is far from standard in the sector, Greenpeace says: “The least transparent companies, – such as AWS, Tencent, LG CNS, and Baidu – are also among the most dominant in their respective markets, making their lack of movement toward more transparency even more egregious.”
Greenpeace warns that “the continued lack of transparency by many companies regarding their energy demand and the supply of electricity powering their data centres remains a significant threat to the sector’s long-term sustainability”.
The NGO also highlights the key role that video streaming will play in future demand. “Video streaming is a tremendous driver of data demand, with 63% of global internet traffic in 2015, which is projected to reach 80% by 2020. Netflix alone already accounts for over one-third of internet traffic in North America and is in the midst of a worldwide expansion.”
There is a tremendous amount of innovation going on in the sector, and those companies that have committed to renewable energy have found that it offers real business benefits as well as environmental ones.
Companies that operate data centres for a living and build them at scale are far more efficient than in-house operations
Data centre provider Iron Mountain started looking at its carbon footprint about four years ago, says Kevin Hagen, the company’s vice-president for environment, social and governance strategy. “At the time everyone assumed it would cost more. But renewables are cost-competitive now. The switch has been really good for cost reduction, cost stability and reducing our environmental impact.”
The other key to reducing data centres’ impact is to improve their energy efficiency. The simplest way to do this is to outsource. “Old-fashioned in-house data centres are generally the least efficient option, mainly because corporate IT departments are not at the cutting edge of data centre design,” says Hagen. “Companies that operate data centres for a living and build them at scale are far more efficient than in-house operations.”
The next option is to go somewhere cold. The servers that data centres use to store information produce a lot of heat, so many companies have started siting their operations in colder countries such as Norway, Sweden and Iceland, which also have the advantage of robust grids and large amounts of renewable energy. Verne Global, for example, has built a facility on a former NATO airbase just outside Reykjavik in Iceland.
“The majority of our power is geothermal and hydroelectric. It is baseload power but renewable,” says Tate Cantrell, chief technology officer at Verne Global. “We are able to do it at lower cost and we have the opportunity to tick the renewable energy box. That’s good if you’re concerned about your energy consumption and the environment, or your customers are.
“There is a drive among data-centre companies to be more efficient, but a lot of it is driven by cost,” Cantrell says. One way that facilities are becoming more efficient is by having a higher density of servers, but that creates more heat, which has to be removed.
There are different approaches to doing that. DigiPlex claims that its air-to-air cooling is more efficient than water cooling while Verne’s Cantrell says that “air has certain engineering limitations for cooling, so we use liquid cooling”.
By putting data centres in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities
Microsoft is taking that approach one step further – with more than half of the world’s population living within 120 miles of the coast, it is experimenting with data centres sited on the seabed near coastal cities. Earlier this year, it installed an underwater facility on the sea floor at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney. “By putting data centres in bodies of water near coastal cities, data would have a short distance to travel to reach coastal communities.”
Meanwhile, Google’s DeepMind is exploring how using artificial intelligence to control cooling systems can improve data-centre efficiency by examining the best ways to minimize energy consumption. “Despite being in place for only a matter of months, the system is already delivering consistent energy savings of around 30% on average, with further expected improvements,” Google says. “That’s because these systems get better over time with more data.”
Norway’s Lefdal Mine Datacenter is sited 150 metres underground in an old mine to help with cooling, and it also uses cold water from a nearby fjord.
DigiPlex is going a step further, and reusing its waste heat in Oslo’s district heating system. Other data centre companies need to start reusing heat, Jansson says. “The industry needs to evolve. Even if there is no residential heating system to tap into, there are many innovative ways to make good use of excess heat.”
He also thinks there should be an eco-labelling scheme for data centres. “There is going to be an exponential increase in the amount of data and if we store it in the way that data centres currently operate, it will not work,” he says. “In the worst-case scenario, there will be restrictions on the amount of data people can generate, how much they can watch TV or use the internet. For that not to happen, we need to raise awareness of what happens when you log on.”
If you house your data in a dirty data centre, that’s a brand risk
In addition, companies need to focus on the sustainability of their data centres, he adds. “I’ve never seen an annual report that talks about a company’s digital carbon footprint. But if you house your data in a dirty data centre, that’s going to have an impact. It’s a brand risk.”
Data centre energy consumption is out of sight, out of mind, adds Hagen, “but buyers [of data centre capacity] have to be part of the solution. You can’t just send it to the cloud and act like it’s not your problem. That’s not the case anymore.”
Mike Scott is a former Financial Times journalist who is now a freelance writer specializing in business and sustainability. He has written for The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, Forbes, Fortune and Bloomberg.
This article is part of the in-depth Ethics of Digitization briefing. See also: