Ten years ago, there was widespread fear that data center power usage was out of control. Then, a couple of years back, fresh figures showed it was not as bad as had been feared. Big outfits like Apple, Facebook and Equinix all promised to use renewable power sources. Problem solved? Unfortunately not quite...
However efficient they are, data centers still consume electricity. And they are now such a significant consumer, they can alter the energy profile of whole countries. The original data center energy fears were outlined in a 2007 US government report which found data center energy demands had increased by 90 percent in five years. In 2011, Jon Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) found that demand was growing more slowly, but this was during an economic recession.
In 2016, data centers got a big stamp of approval: an update of Koomey’s report found that the data centers the report covered were growing at only one percent a year - thanks to efficiencies from virtualization. There are potentials for even greater efficiency, if services move to the cloud. And with the move to renewable energy contracts, maybe the panic was over.
Or, unfortunately, maybe not...
In recent weeks, we have heard that one of the world’s leaders in renewable power - Denmark, could see its carbon emissions go up by ten percent in the years leading up to 2030 - and this is largely because of an influx of data centers, many of which are paying 'green energy tariffs'.
Denmark currently gets 30 percent of its energy (60 percent of its electricity) from renewables, almost all of this from wind farms. The country plans to phase out fossil fuel completely by 2050 - even for the transport sector. Denmark also has a speedy planning process - Apple, for instance is building two data centers there in the time it took Ireland to consider a planning application for only one. This is all bringing in big data centers. And, even though providers like Apple and Facebook always of course pay the 'green energy tariff', their arrival could actually increase emissions.
The problem is set out in a government memorandum obtained by the newspaper Politiken. Wind power is intermittent, and wind energy projects also take a long time to build. Data centers demand a continuous baseline power (best provided by fossil fuels, or renewables such as hydro-electric power or geothermal energy) and want it quickly. If they specify renewable power, then they shift the dirty power to other consumers - and if new power is needed quickly, chances are it will be fossil power.
One hyperscale data center could use as much as 200MW of power, which is a noticeable fraction of the country’s 10GW of power demand. If dozens are built - and Denmark is so popular this might happen - it could actually affect the country’s ambition to switch off its fossil power stations in 2030, and maybe even put its reduction program into reverse.
“There is no way that existing renewables facilities could hope to meet the prospective demand from data centers,” said website Citylab, which got hold of the Danish government memo. “That means the country will have to generate power using more conventional, polluting sources, including coal.”
This is just one example of data centers driving fossil fuel development. In Virginia, USA, home of one of the world’s greatest concentrations of digital infrastructure, the utility Dominion is dead-set on building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, to carry natural gas that will meat electricity demands.
“Dominion, the dominant utility, are justifying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to deliver Marsellas natural gas from shale fields down into Virginia,” said Greenpeace senior corporate campaigner Gary Cook a DCD event in San Francisco in June. “Of the two big demands they point to, number one is more data centers. So unless you’re doing something to change that mixed supply, this sector is helping to drive new fossil fuel investment that we can’t afford. It’s going to be replacing renewables for the near term basis if that goes forward in Virginia for some time to come.”
The moral seems to be to look carefully at the big picture. Not just what power you’ve signed up to use, but what the overall impact on the grid will be. It’s sad, but simple answers provided by single reports don’t cover every situation.