Cloud Computing and Huge Data Centers are Killing Our Planet!

Planet KillerCloud Computing and Data Centers are killing our planet.  Drive to the hardware store, buy a hammer, chisel and piece of stone and begin writing about it. Put away your computer, turn off your internet connection, un-plug the video game console, iPod and the TV. We must do everything we can to get rid of these giant, energy sucking, pollution generating, and planet killing warehouses of death immediately.  

All kidding aside, it is true that many of our older data centers are in serious need of improvements in their power efficiency.  However, it's also true that data centers contain much of our work effort and play environments. If this work and play was to be distributed in small chunks throughout the business or our households instead of concentrated in data centers they would be considerably more wasteful of our planets resources.

In my 20 plus year career in IT I've always been proud of my ability to bring efficiency to IT, and the business. When Data Center Pulse was founded the driving motivation was to push for the development of power sipping IT equipment designs, combined with more efficient data centers. In parallel we're actively working to persuade owners to implement those new solutions more quickly. We strongly believed that the IT/Data Center industry had a need to focus more attention on effective use of energy. The DCP Leadership team was made up of like minded individuals that each have work history examples of a focus on reducing energy consumption.  So why would I be writing an article about data centers getting a bad rap? It seems like I should be agreeing with those articles, as it seems like I'm contradicting myself.  Well, that couldn't be farther from the truth.

There is no doubt that there are good ways and bad ways to build data centers, from site selection, to air flow dynamics and especially on how the IT equipment is put to use. This effort to build an efficient space to meet the ever growing need for compute capacity doesn't seem to be enough. At least it isn't if you read some of the green oriented blogs that hound data center builders, cloud providers and perceived "GreenWashing" in the technology industry regarding them. 

What I always find missing in these stories criticizing large data centers and cloud computing is a comparison of the alternatives and a fair assessment of market and political drivers affecting data center build decisions. I'm very much in favor of conservation and doing the best we can for the environment, but we also need to find a way for society to keep moving forward. In a capitalist system, profit is the only way we can maintain forward momentum. So I believe we have to first make a consideration, if you put free Twinkies in front of someone with limited funds, but charge them $20 for a similar amount of Broccoli, generally speaking which one will the person pick to eat? In other words, why would a company pay 15 cents a kilo Watt hour for clean energy, when federal and state governments are using taxpayer funds to practically give away fossil fuel generated energy? Our Federal government continues to subsidize the coal and fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions of dollars every year.  And unless I'm mistaken, these energy companies seem to be enjoying fairly strong profit margins.  

The following are some examples borrowed from;

"Examples of U.S. Treasury Department Funding

Examples of new or proposed coal-fired power plants that are funded in part by tax-exempt debt include the following:

  • The Prairie State Energy Campus Project in Illinois is a mine-mouth 1600 MW supercritical steam turbine power plant without carbon capture technology. The more than $4 billion plant has several participating partners, with one partner, the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency (NIMPA), buying 120 MW of the 800 MW plant with $303 of its $318 million investment portion financed with tax-exempt debt.

  • The Longleaf Energy Station in Georgia is a proposed 1200 MW pulverized coal fired power plant supported by the Early County (Georgia) Development Authority with federally backed local development bonds.

  • The Two Elk coal plant in Wyoming is a proposed coal plant that purports to use so-called "waste coal" and has received hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-exempt debt authority since it was classified as a solid waste recycling facility. Approval for the tax-exempt financing is currently being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

Global Support for the fossil fuel industry is as much as 500 billion US dollars annually

Build America Bonds: Additional Source of Funding

A new program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Build American Bonds (BABs), expands the U.S. Treasury's use of financing tools to subsidize coal-fired power plants. Under the program, issuers of the taxable bonds are provided a 35% direct pay interest subsidy to reduce the costs of borrowing. Power companies are eligible for these federally subsidized taxable bonds funding under BABs: American Municipal Power Ohio used the tax-exempt bond market to finance the construction of the Prairie State Energy Campus in Illinois and, after the 2009 financial crisis began, issued through the BABs program nearly $500 million dollars of federally subsidized taxable bonds to finance the last phases of construction. The bonds have also been used for scrubbers at existing plants."

It's not all bad news though. There are many states with aggressive clean energy plans in place with subsidies for developing renewable energy supplies. Also, the federal government is working with the G20 to eliminate government subsidies for fossil fuel development. President Obama has already removed the subsidies from this year's Federal budget.

Another positive trend is the number of US states that are pushing energy providers to supply a significant portion of their power through renewable sources over the next 10-15 years.

Using the information in figure 1 below, try to find an activity other than reading a book (not a digital one) or sleeping that uses less energy than 10 Google searches. This should be a wakeup call that the concentration of compute resources and their effective utilization are much more efficient than everyone doing the same work through independent personally owned computer, network, storage resource and or their car.

Figure 1

 Google Search

We're not Providing Real Incentives for the use of Renewable Energy to Companies Building Data Centers

How can we expect our companies who only survive if they stay competitive to ignore the opportunity of something cheaper, with more incentives to boot? The fact is the state is making the site more cost effective at tax payer expense, while they help subsidize the energy provider and then take more tax money to clean up the mess created. If we're going to go after someone for perpetuating this bad behavior we should be going after the federal and state governments. If we as a nation can provide reasonable incentives to corporations to make the right choices, then we drive up the use of alternative energy and drive down the incentive to do otherwise. Technology and data centers can be implemented poorly, but our planet stands little chance of surviving the forward march of the human race without them.

The Complexity of Data Center Energy Sourcing

Data center owners are faced with a myriad of choices to select the "perfect" site for their next Data Center.  When finding an energy source the Data Center owner will face both business and government politics often incentivizing poor choices.  Combine unfocused sustainability efforts and missing or backwards incentives from the government and it puts the selection of clean or renewable energy at the bottom of priority list.

It's no wonder companies like Digital Realty Trust are doing so well these days. The complexity and work effort associated with making a decision around your data center's site selection is extremely high. There are a number of factors (Geography, Network, Water, Staff, etc) that need to be considered, most of which can be accommodated by an experienced Facilities or IT person with data center knowledge. However, as you can see from figure 2, the layers of concern on the question of energy alone can be a back breaker.

Often times the Facilities or IT person that is making Data Center decisions is not a political or energy sector expert and is lucky to see beyond their immediate layer of concern and rarely gets past the corporate layer.  Who then is accountable for corporate energy decisions?  Unfortunately the answer all to often is "no one" the multiple layers often keep the "right" decision out of reach despite the best intentions.

Figure 2

 DC owner

Using Lots of Energy Makes the Data Center a Target of Opportunity and of Protest

Yes, it's bad to have to use coal to power a large data center, but isn't it worse that the tax payer is actually supporting the effort? I'm not suggesting that we should reduce our focus on data centers either, as evidenced by this Data Center Pulse proposal to the federal government. I am suggesting that data centers, especially modern efficient ones aren't the real problem, in the majority of cases they are creating huge environmental benefits and energy savings versus the alternative of everyone running their own IT equipment. We can't forget that all of us use technology every day. If everyone was to provide their own equipment in their homes, imagine the impact to power draw? We would have billions of systems, all of which are running at or below 5% average utilization, and don't forget that we'd have even less control over where the power came from for all these home based servers, network and storBus in trafficage devices. The energy used to build all this extra IT gear, along with the waste generated would quickly outstrip the world's ability to support it.

I think our next target should be those Planet Killing Busses!

Maybe we should yell at bus manufacturers for making vehicles that use so much energy? After all the average bus carries 10X the number of passengers that a car does, but uses at least 5X the energy.  I guess I should go back to driving.  It turns out it's not data centers that are going to kill the planet, it's busses!

My next blog might take a while because I'm going to have to ride my bike to the hardware store and buy that hammer, chisel and stone. I need to hurry because I'm worried there will be a rush on iStones.

A big THANKS to Jeremy Rodriguez for his contributions to this article!


More to Chew on

Mark great article.... but the Data Center market doesn't even compare in CO2 usage when put against the Meat industry... I don't see anyone crying about their steaks causing a Global catastrophy

But Greenpeace will go up against HP. facebook, and others with only part of the facts and then distort the facts to meet their view of things.   Do we need to continue to innovate our Data Centers and systems?  yes, but we also need to look at the true scope and use of our CO2 production in relation to other industries as well.