Energy-Hungry Data Centers Could Become Efficient Models for Sustainability

The tech industry is embracing energy efficiency and renewable sources of power — but more could be done to curb its big appetite for electricity.

The Equinix data center in San Jose, California, where companies like Google and Facebook rent space to store data, looks from the inside like a giant circuit board.

Row upon row of humming servers are filled with the information we send and receive in our everyday lives, from Facebook photos and Youtube videos to email messages music downloads.

And it’s clear this place uses a lot of energy.

US data centers like Equinix consumed around 70 billion kilowatt-hours in 2014, accounting for nearly two percent of the country’s total energy consumption, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The International Data Corporation, a technology research company, estimates the amount of information stored in data centers will increase 40 percent each year over the next decade.

One might expect a comparable increase in the amount of energy required to store all that data. But growth in energy consumption has actually slowed down, according to a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report. And, tech industry watchers suggest, the trend could continue — and even improve — if data storage companies improve energy efficiency and increase the amount of renewable energy they consume, which is good for the environment and their bottom lines.

“We shouldn’t get fixated on there being this perceived competition between going green and being sort of successful and prosperous in business,” said Mary Sotos, who, when interviewed, worked at the World Resources Institute, but has since moved to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“The two," she added, "actually depend on each other.”

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Sotos said sustainable business models have become more mainstream among Fortune 500 companies.

Last year, 60 percent of Fortune 500 tech companies said in annual reports to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that climate change was a potential long-term business risk. Hewlett Packard led the trend back in 2008, followed by Intel, Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T, Apple, and most recently, Google. In these reports, they outline how climate change could lead to more natural disasters, like floods, that might damage data centers. More droughts, they say, might threaten water supplies that are crucial to keeping hardware cool. And, they add, unpredictable regulatory environments in the energy sector could drive up electricity costs.

To combat these long-term risks, companies appear to be pivoting towards more sustainable practices, said Pierre Delforge of NRDC.

“There’s a huge amount of efficiency potential,” he said.

Demand for data storage, he said, peaks only a couple times per year. He compared the situation to an airline flying planes most of the year that are 10 percent full in order to accommodate increased demand around the holidays.

To make servers more efficient, companies have begun to consolidate data from nearly empty servers into fewer servers, allowing them to turn some off and save energy. Think of it as server carpooling: If more people shared cars to get to work, there would be fewer automobiles on the road, which would reduce fuel consumption and traffic congestion.

One small change that resulted in huge savings for Equinix simply involved switching incandescent light bulbs to LEDs and installing motion sensors that control when lights are on or off. Adopting simple sustainability measures like these could save businesses almost $4 billion annually, according to NRDC.

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Beyond energy efficiency savings, tech giants like Google and Apple say they are increasing investments renewable energy sources.

Delforge said, many tech companies are promoting corporate sustainability in order to get a leg up in a competitive hiring environment.

“Tech workers generally desire their employer to have a social and environmental purpose,” he said, “and the war for talent is basically driving these companies to ensure that they are responding to that workforce expectation.”

Equinix sustainability director David Rinard said that sustainability has been a growing trend with data centers over the past three or four years. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe, Equinix, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Salesforce, and SAP are companies that run or use data centers extensively, and all have pledged to eventually power their centers with 100 percent renewable energy.

Rinard said that as more Equinix clients set sustainability goals, particularly around renewable energy, the company has made efforts to keep up.

“If we’re not renewable, they’re not renewable,” said Rinard. “What we do and how we act matters to them. If we’re polluting the environment, they’re polluting the environment.”

He said the company tries to build data centers in places with strong renewable energy policies in order to meet customer demand. Data centers need to be located near users so internet connections remain fast, however, so Rinard said Equinix also encourages area utilities and regulators to embrace greater amounts of renewables.

Delforge said President Donald Trump’s commitment to reversing Obama-era climate change regulations has made it critical for companies to not only become more efficient, but advocate for broader change.

“Companies stepping out of their own corporate sustainability impact and getting involved at the policy level is critical,” said Delforge. “It’s also a good litmus test about how serious they are about sustainability.”

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Last November, 365 companies, including eBay and Salesforce, signed a letter urging the Trump administration to continue supporting low-carbon initiatives and to remain in the Paris agreement on climate change. The companies pledged to improve their environmental practices regardless of what the administration does.

Sotos said she thinks many companies will continue the trend towards more sustainability.

“The environment,” she said, “doesn’t care who’s in office.”

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