Data centres drive our life in the Cloud. But they're on an upward curve of energy use... How can they be planet-friendly?

A Facebook data centre in Luleå, Sweden

A Facebook data centre in Luleå, Sweden

The zero-carbon eye (like a benign Sauron) watches over all of our habits and practices these days. Its job is to make us unsettled and mindful of how much our daily actions are contributing to global warming.

And probably one of the most difficult to account for is the energy consumed (and heat generated) by data centres. These are the constantly-processing computers and servers which make our life on The Cloud - all those communications, knowledge, services and and relationships we love - so ubiquitous and possible.

There are a number of good psychological and wellbeing reasons that we should want to disengage from our devices - we’ve covered them a lot here. To attend to our inner health properly would, in any case, reduce these devices’ energy footprint.

But we want to make a plea here for their continuing presence, perhaps even their naturalness, in our lives. The role that imagination and reality-construction plays in our ongoing human consciousness is key - social networks just intensify and extend that capacity.

And we have always been taken by Tim Flannery’s vision of a networked planet as the Gaian superorganism coming to consciousness, through its socio-techincal human networks discussing and coordinating how to steward itself through the heavens. A continuous web presence would allow us to exercise that responsibility daily. We don’t need to be meme addicts. But also, those systems don’t have to be designed to addict us that way.

So… we should have our data centres. How is their progress to a zero-carbon impact going, then?

There’s progress, but it has to be monitored and protected. The extrapolations from the present are alarming, as this Medium article shows:

A recent article published in Nature indicates that data centers currently use an estimated 200 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricty per year. This is 1% of the global electricity demand and more than the energy consumption of some countries.

By 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council has projected that U.S. data center electricty consumption will increase to approximately 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually. This will cost U.S. businesses $13 billion. It means that U.S. data centers would produce nearly 150 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. Equal to the annual output and pollution of 50 coal-fired power plants...

It has been reported that the global carbon footprint of the ICT industry accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emissions. This is comparable to that of the aviation industry’s fuel emissions. By 2020, it is estimated that the ICT industry will account for a maximum of 3.6% of the total global carbon footprint.

Data centers currently contribute an estimated 0.3% to total carbon emissions. By 2020, it is estimated that data centers will account for 45% of the total ICT industry carbon footprint, a 12% increase from 2010.

On the surface - and perhaps not surprisingly, in terms of their love of efficiency and optimisation - it would seem that tech companies are falling over themselves to hit their own stringent low or zero-carbon targets. From this Telegraph article (PDF here):

Microsoft plans to cut its company-wide carbon emissions by 75pc by 2030. The company’s president Brad Smith outlined his green energy plan in a blog post last month, and said Microsoft had reached its 50pc green energy target for the end of 2018. Facebook says it is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas footprint by 75pc and reaching 100pc renewable energy by 2020.

Similarly Amazon, with its Shipment Zero plan, has pledged to cut its delivery emissions in half. However, the e-commerce giant was accused of breaking its commitment to power cloud with 100pc renewable energy earlier this year, after a report from Greenpeace claimed that its data centres in Virginia are powered by only 12pc renewable energy.

A spokesman for AWS claimed the report was "inaccurate" and that Greenpeace had not performed "proper due diligence by fact-checking with AWS before publishing". The company since said it aims to be 100pc carbon neutral and plans to share its company-wide carbon footprint.

Carbon neutrality --where a company’s emissions are balanced out by carbon savings elsewhere -- is a goal that many tech giants have also said they are committed to. Microsoft says it has been carbon neutral since 2012, Google since 2007.

Apple says that its operations, including data centres, are now powered wholly by clean energy. It spent 1.3 billion kWh of green electricity in the 2018 fiscal year to power its data operations. Apple was named the world’s most environmentally friendly technology company by Greenpeace in 2018, Microsoft was fourth.

Yet if 5G - the system that will bring the next explosion of mobile data to our phones - kicks off and beds in, these servers will be working to another order again. The Telegraph piece shows how bizarre the locations for servers are becoming - the colder the better (because climate reducing the need for expensive cooling systems):

Microsoft decided to sink a data centre in the North Sea [Orkney, in fact]. Google uses seawater from the Gulf of Finland to chill its Hamina servers, and Facebook launched a data centre on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Sweden.

US energy company Green Mountain has a data centre in the middle of a mountain, cooled by the “cold waters of a Norwegian fjord”.

In perhaps the most extreme example yet, the World Data Archive promises clients their data will be safe from nuclear blasts in a converted mine on an island deep in the Arctic mountains of Norway, which is under permafrost conditions

Yet as this Wired article reports, quoting one data-centre CEO, "you can actually see changes in the microclimate around big data centres. If you're looking to have palm trees in the northern part of Sweden, then that's good, but if you want to maintain the current climate in northern Sweden, then you should force data centres to reuse the heat somehow." Suggestions include heating a greenhouse or a brewery next to a data centre.

But as the Wired article investigates, there’s a bit of bullshit around the tech companies figures. How much are they buying “green energy” credits, that are nevertheless brought to them by the same old toxic grids? They do purchase direct from renewable sources - a decade ago, “Google bought all the electrical output from a wind farm in Iowa. Microsoft did the same last year, signing a purchase agreement with a wind farm in Ohio:”

Such projects spur investment in renewables, letting energy companies build wind farms knowing they have a long-term customer. "Such agreements give the supplier confidence of a market for energy over a period of time, and so make it easier for them to invest in new renewable energy projects," says Chris Preist, professor of sustainability and computer systems at the University of Bristol.

"So, in regions where the political will is there, it will certainly result in the deployment of more renewable energy over time." Or, as Joppa puts it, such contracts "help green the grid".

Over time, sure. But in time?

Greenpeace have taken the initiative in trying to force tech giants to think of the externalities generated by their data centres. Their 2017 report Click Clean is comprehensive, but already out of date. (Though they are challenging Amazon on their claims, saying they’re “only meeting 12 percent of their renewable energy commitment as its East Coast presence and energy demand grows” [Greenpeace and news report, which tells of the company’s secrecy over its low-carbon claims]).

Of course, the ironies abound. How else could we find out about all this (or even do this blog as a voluntary effort) without a cloud of web services to increase our efficiency? Yet we should be ready to receive continuous assessments on how carbon-producing our digital bounty is.

Easy clicks, and a dreamworld of interaction and content, are less important than a viable biosphere for our children.

More here: A 2018 Nature feature on energy use and data centres