TotalCIO

Apr 29 2011   11:54AM GMT

The dirty little secret of data center construction



Posted by: 4Laura
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CIO
data center construction

Much of the data center construction around the globe is being conducted by purveyors of popular websites like Facebook and Google. These heroes of the Information Age are feverishly expanding capacity to deal with the massive amount of data being generated by their services over the Internet.

But look behind the curtain, and these Wizards of Oz have a dirty little secret: To a staggering degree, they’re still buying electricity generated by coal-burning power plants.

“The IT industry’s failure to disclose basic information on its rapidly growing energy footprint has hidden a continued reliance on 19th-century dirty coal power to power its 21st-century infrastructure,” said Gary Cook, an IT policy analyst at Greenpeace International, an Amsterdam-based organization that uses nonviolent, creative confrontation to expose global environmental problems.

Apple, Facebook and IBM have the biggest appetites for coal-generated electricity, consuming enough to supply more than half of their power needs, according to a new report from Greenpeace titled, “How Dirty is Your Data?”.

The report analyzes publicly available information to estimate the amount of clean and dirty energy being driven by investment decisions and energy choices by the major Internet brands. Finding those numbers from within the companies proved nearly impossible, according to Cook.

“Despite the fact that data centers … currently consume 1.5% to 2% of all global electricity and are growing at a rate of 12% per year, companies in the sector as a whole do not release information on their energy use and its associated global warming emissions,” Cook wrote.

U.S. data center construction is clustering in places like North Carolina and the Midwest, where cheap, coal-powered electricity is abundant. When opened, the Apple iData Center in North Carolina, for example, will consume an estimated 100 megawatts — equivalent to the electricity needed to power about 80,000 U.S. homes, or a quarter-million European Union ones. Apple has not yet announced how the data center will be powered.

Greenpeace’s estimates of coal intensity put IBM, HP and Twitter just behind Apple and Facebook: Apple at 54.5%, Facebook at 53.2%, IBM at 51.6%, HP at 49.4% and Twitter at 42.5%. Google’s coal intensity is ranked at 34.7%, Microsoft’s at 34.1%, Amazon’s at 28.5% and Yahoo’s at 18.3%.

Recognizing that such IT giants could be the group that leads the world to renewable energy — or, conversely, hastens the adverse effects of global warming — Greenpeace this month issued an Earth Day challenge to Facebook, calling upon the company to “unfriend coal.”

Alas, the deadline came and went with no such action, despite a blizzard of posts from 700,000 Greenpeace supporters who set a Guinness World Record for the most comments on a Facebook post in 24 hours.

Google, at least, is getting the message when it comes to new data center construction. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced last week that it would purchase power for the next 20 years from a wind farm to be built in Oklahoma; this follows a similar agreement last year to buy power from a wind farm in Ohio. Google plans to sell surplus energy from the farms to the local electrical grid, thereby ensuring that more renewable energy enters the market as part of Google’s goal of operating on a carbon-neutral footprint.

Coal-burning power plants emit harmful chemicals that are warming the Earth’s atmosphere to life-threatening levels. Nuclear power, long proposed as the safe alternative, is explosive under certain circumstances, as we’ve seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Moreover, it’s extremely difficult to safely store spent fuel rods.

Wind, solar and geothermal power projects are coming along, but not as fast as the rate of data, which is forcing huge cloud providers to choose power sources during data center construction that appear to be less costly. Yet these business practices could be costly for environmental health, which affects us all.

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  • SamplerPG
    Unfortunately, Greenpeace's usual propaganda emanating from their Holland offices which receives most of it's power from Frances 80% nuclear power based infrastrutcure. The hypothesis of dangerous runaway man made global warming is false, and designed by a politically minded, anti-capitalist group, with support from self interest groups requiring bottomless pits of money from taxpayers to research their pet interests, and using fear to scare the general public and politicians. Prior to coal fired power stations, there were notable periods in the earth's history where atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, not a pollutant, but an intrinsic part of the world's ecosystem food chain, were far higher than the worst projections being bandied about by Greenpeace scaremongers, and there was NO RUNAWAY DANGEROUS GLOBAL WARMING. How terribly inconvenient. Modern coal burning plants have made huge strides in cleaning up real pollutants like sulphur dioxide and particulate matter from their stacks, but all these positive moves pale into insignificance when measured against sulphur and particulate matter blasted out by inconvenient, non UNO and Greenpeace regulated volcanoes, both above, and below the sea. And is that really bad? Only recently have deep-sea cameras provided stunning and completely unexpected evidence of abundant life forms apparently thriving in high sulphur and very high temperatures around the vents of these sub-marine cative volcanoes. The notion that man can really influence the world's intricate climate system whilst driven by an uncontrollable atomic power station in the sky is just plain silly. Yet every generation's scientists like to think that they are the ones with the full understanding of nature, and the ones before them were jsut uninformed. This generation's whose scientists promote the fear of dangerous runaway global warming for monetary gain and research grants will be mocked by their successors in the very near future. But unlike their forebears, this new generation of scaremongers is making excellent money out of the scam, and they won't be around to be brought to task when their Madoff like adventure is eventually proved completely silly. But the taxes will have been taken and enjoyed! In true scientific debate, anyone claiming that dissent or alternative viewpoints should be shut down, clearly represents the same idiology expressed in the past, where for instance a medical doctor suggested washing hands before an operation would increase the chances of a successful outcome. He was ridiculed and pilloried by the mainstream medical groups of the time, just like the IPCC and Greenpeace do today to anyone who doesn't share their agenda. That's how you know who they really are. When so called scientiests have to fiddle the data using various "tricks" to hide the cooling, then you know what a scam it has become.
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