Data Centers: The High Environmental Cost of Computing


Photo by Humphrey Bolton. Some rights reserved.

Here at the Green Mien, we’ve brought your attention to the issue of power usage (and the accompanying emissions, depending  on the energy sources) by data centers before. The New York Times produced several lengthy pieces this week regarding the ongoing effects of large data centers (citing Microsoft’s and Facebook’s, among others) on the environment.  Microsoft has been accused of energy waste and was the subject of legal action by disgruntled locals regarding its “nearly 40 giant diesel generators that Microsoft’s facility — near an elementary school — is allowed to use for backup power.”  The Facebook piece noted that since Internet companies “typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock,” the possibility for waste is high – “data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid,”  according to the NYT.

But measures are in the works to make some changes. Google announced this week that it will purchase wind power-based energy to run its data center in Oklahoma. And House representatives who sit on energy-related committees were alarmed enough by the New York Times stories that they are asking the DOE and EPA if steps are being taken to improve usage and efficiency.

And although the figures in the Times pieces are certainly worth a closer look, both InformationWeek and Wired have pointed out that in several spots the pieces refer to older-style data centers, and that recently built, more modern facilities have increased efficiency in step with improved technology. New data centers are being built all the time, however, and even with improvements in energy use, this issue will continue to be a prominent one.

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