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Climate Change and Data Centers: A Vicious Cycle

Apr 28, 2016

The past 100 years have seen a surge in carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Leaps in technology have improved lives in the last century. However, these improvements are inseparable from the ecological and social burdens they place on the planet. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. There will be some climate change impact. However, by reducing our current consumption of energy, we can reduce the impact to manageable levels. That said, a crucial step is to determine the sources of emissions and cut back on them.

Between the largest and smallest industries, data centers have positions in both as climate change contributors

Several key industries are major contributors of carbon emissions. Transportation, textile, agriculture, and manufacturing companies make up the largest fossil fuel consumers. Several agreements have been struck toward reducing consumption. Individuals also contribute their own fair share of emissions. There are opportunities for educating business owners and consumers about reducing power usage. Positioned in the middle is the data center industry, with operations both big and small. The United States is second behind China in global emissions. Americans produce 14.69% of the world’s carbon dioxide. This is a 9% higher rate than the next biggest contributor, India. While data centers are less impactful than primary industries, the United States is home to over 12 million servers in data centers of varying degrees of size and clout. This means there is still a significant opportunity to contribute a large footprint. The number one source for carbon emissions in the US is the burning of fossil fuels by power plants. Data centers have a high stake in the consumption numbers. Considering the vast expanse of infrastructure and commodities that rely on electricity, power usage statistics must be carefully examined. It is necessary to quantify the changes that would need to occur in order to curb future emissions and reverse the current trend. Data center energy usage can be quantified, but the challenge of curbing emissions remains.

Feeding a vicious cycle

Servers store all of our digital information and host electronic services we have around-the-clock access to. This includes email, social media, websites, and search engines. As we rely on them every day, their numbers are increasing rapidly. While data centers require a lot of energy to operate, a bigger concern is that companies operating them typically leave them powered on at full capacity 24/7. This can waste up to 90% of the power consumed. Combined with the cooling systems data centers require, there is a huge percentage of power being used. In fact, they account for 1.5-2% of all of the world’s electricity consumption. That rate grows by 12% annually, and currently accounts for 2% of the entire globe’s emissions. A major source of carbon emissions from data centers comes from cooling servers, which overheat easily. In most cases, servers require constantly running cooling systems to ensure they remain at a level temperature. This means energy consumption is almost doubled. In hotter climates, data centers must go further to maintain climate control for servers. As the Earth heats up from global warming, more data centers will require full-powered cooling systems, continuing the cycle.

Rise of the zombies

Another factor in the carbon footprint left by data centers is that many are hosting zombie servers. Zombie servers run at all hours of the day while performing no functions whatsoever. They exist because data center operators are hesitant to decommission excess servers. Decommissioning requires time and involves risks. However, unused servers result in millions of wasted kilowatts, not to mention higher bills over time. Of the 12 million servers in the US, around 30% are zombies, and 10 million can be found worldwide. These numbers are indicative of the overall impact data centers can have on climate change. The irony is that as data centers accelerate climate change, they generate problems that require more power consumption. There are even predictions that climate change may influence storms to develop more frequently and with more strength. This would be bad news for the bi-coastal concentrations of data centers.

Harnessing new technology to combat climate change

There is a price to pay for having access to our beloved World Wide Web and for generating and storing all of the information that accompanies it. Experts project that over the next five years, internet usage will grow by 60%. Fortunately, there are ways to step outside of the cycle. At this point, major companies have no choice but to lead the industry in solutions. Google, Apple, and Facebook have begun harnessing renewable energy to power their services. Greenpeace is placing public pressure on other major data companies to follow suit. With data usage on the rise, there will be large-scale operations to make the switch to renewable resources. We have access to the tools and information we need to educate smaller data centers and business owners about the importance of energy conservation. Making these companies aware of their footprint and helping them develop plans to recycle unused and inefficient servers is vital. There are also solutions for efficiently cooling servers and cutting costs while reducing environmental impact. We can harness modern innovation to solve its own problems.
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