Data centers consume colossal amounts of energy and water, with most waste — largely stemming from operating inefficiencies — actually coming from the country’s millions of small data centers.
WASHINGTON — Data centers are wasting electricity so excessively that only “critical action” can prevent the pollution and rate hikes that some U.S. regions could eventually suffer as a result of power plant construction intended to ensure that the ravenous facilities are well-fed, a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Anthesis warns.
The report, “Scaling Up Energy Efficiency Across the Data Center Industry: Evaluating Key Drivers and Barriers,” was issued on Aug. 26. Data centers, which number in the millions, are collections of servers (in-house or otherwise) which store and process data for businesses as ordinary as real estate firms or as large as social media platforms like Facebook.
The NRDC report describes the inefficient approach to server management common in practically all U.S. businesses, and recommends a variety of actions to save energy by tackling those inefficiencies.
Greenpeace issued a related report in April:“Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet.” The report argues that stand-alone data centers (whether they’re built for individual or multiple companies) should power their operations with renewable energy.
Enormous demand for water as well as electricity
The largest data centers also require dedicated cooling systems, which use enormous volumes of water. Last October, for example, the Salt Lake City Tribune revealed that a Bluffdale, Utah, data center under construction for the National Security Agency would consume 1.7 million gallons of water per day for its cooling system.
According to ClimateProgress.org, the Microsoft data center in San Antonio is using 8 million gallons of water per month. But many of the largest companies operating data centers, including those for Facebook, Google and eBay, are taking steps to reduce their use of cooling water, Climate Progress says.
However, they’re devouring electricity to run their servers as well as their cooling systems, which is raising serious concerns about the adequacy of power supplies in the areas where data centers have been built — and where they’ll be sited in the future.
“Data centers already use an enormous amount of electricity,” Pierre Delforge, who co-authored the NRDC report, told MintPress News. “They are the fastest-growing of all energy-intensive sectors, and we believe it’s critically important to reduce their energy demand before it forces avoidable power-plant construction in some U.S. regions.”
Building power plants in response to rising demand from data centers is avoidable because, according to a conservative estimate by NRDC and Anthesis, data centers could slash their yearly electrical consumption – which totaled 91 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2013 – by 40 percent if they implemented a variety of common-sense efficiency measures.
If those steps aren’t taken, the NRDC report warns, electrical consumption by U.S. data centers will reach the equivalent output of 50 power plants with a capacity of 500 megawatts each – or 140 billion kWh – by 2020.
Much of that colossal energy increase would be used to power redundant or unused servers. But the greatest percentage of overall waste isn’t occurring at the largest data servers; the lion’s share of the waste is occurring at the millions of small data centers.
The largest data centers, which include facilities built for cloud computing (such as the Facebook data centers) and federal agencies (such as the NSA), account for only 5 percent of total data center energy demand, says the NRDC report. Small and medium server rooms (containing a few or a few hundred servers) account for 49 percent of data centers’ energy use; corporate data centers account for 27 percent; and multi-tenant data centers account for 19 percent.
The report notes that the largest data centers tend to be more efficient than their smaller, and much more numerous, siblings. But there are some glaring exceptions, as the Greenpeace report points out.
Greenpeace grades the best and the worst
The exceptions are dramatically exposed by a scorecard in the Greenpeacereport. The scorecard grades 14 of the largest, single-company data centers and five of the largest multi-tenant data centers.
The worst performers turn out to be Oracle and Amazon.com Web Services, which both scored an “F” for “Energy Efficiency & Mitigation.” Worst of all is Twitter, which scored an “F” in three of the four categories in the scorecard.
The best performer in terms of energy efficiency and its commitment to renewables, the Scorecard shows, is Apple.
But Twitter and other poor performers identified by the scorecard may be starting to “feel the pressure” to increase the transparency and intensity of their energy-saving initiatives (if they have any), Gary Cook, lead author of the Greenpeace report, told MintPress.
“We will be working to increase our pressure on them because we see these large companies as potentially key players in shifting the online world to one that’s powered by renewable energy,” said Cook, adding that persuading companies to reveal data on their energy usage and efficiency would ratchet up the disclosure pressure on all U.S. businesses.
“The need for transparency [which is also singled out in the NRDC report] is very clear,” Cook continued. “Three years ago, there were very few companies reporting the amount of renewable energy, if any, powering their operations, and now you’re seeing some of the largest companies actually reporting their carbon footprint. But Amazon [Web Services] hasn’t even reached first base, and that’s something we really want them to do.”
Ratepayers could end up holding the bag
The Greenpeace report identifies three areas in the U.S. with the largest concentrations of large data centers: Northern Virginia, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest. The NRDC and Anthesis maintain that the additional electricity those data centers will demand through 2020 could be met by implementing the efficiency measures they recommend.
If, on the other hand, power plants are built or expanded to meet rising demand in those areas, then “the rate impacts from the construction of new plants will erode the competitiveness of the [currently attractive] regions, causing new data centers to be built in other regions and causing some existing facilities to relocate,” says Delforge, who heads the NRDC’s Energy Efficiency Programs for the High Tech Sector.
Delforge warns that the departure of data centers (and potentially other energy-intensive businesses) from those three geographic areas “will leave local consumers and businesses saddled with higher energy bills for a long time.”
The unseen wasteland
The grim scenario could be avoided if data centers – particularly the multi-tenant facilities and smaller operations – halted their wasteful practices. Here are a few examples of those practices, as well as the NRDC’s recommendations to end them:
•Average servers, which typically draw 100 to 300 watts, consume power whether or not they’re working. Programming servers to “hibernate” when they’re idle “is technically feasible and a major efficiency opportunity,” says Delforge.
•Many servers remain in their racks as “zombie servers,” gulping energy even after their use for some purpose has been permanently terminated. Those servers, the NRDC says, should be unplugged.
•Servers run at full power every day of the year – even if they only run at their full, processing power only once or twice a year (e.g., Christmas and Thanksgiving). Servers, the NRDC says, should be “merged” into virtual servers whenever possible.
•Data centers – especially the multi-tenant variety – typically rely on powerful, energy-wasting fans to cool “hot aisles” (the aisles along the servers’ back panels). The NRDC recommends the adoption of innovative cooling technologies to replace those fans.
•IT departments routinely allow multi-tenant data centers to charge their companies for unmetered, monthly “blocks” of power – whether or not a company ever uses more than a small fraction of the power block. The NRDC urges companies to insist on metering at multi-tenant facilities.
Delforge points out that one reason multi-tenant data centers can get away with such billing practices is that “IT departments don’t pay the power bills.” At the same time, IT managers “don’t want to be held accountable if their servers don’t come up instantly for processing requests, so – whether the servers are embedded or off-site – most IT managers don’t ever want their servers hibernating.”
Like Greenpeace, Delforge says, the NRDC is working with IT and data center managers to encourage and facilitate the adoption of innovative cooling technologies and best-efficiency practices.
“We meet directly with data center operators and service providers, we participate in industry conferences, and contribute to standardization working groups [such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program],” he said. “It’s critically important for them to understand how important it is to halt their energy waste.”