Behind the Virtual “Cloud,” a Trail of Smoke

The massive internet infrastructure that allows you to upload a Facebook photo, post a blog, and send an e-mail escapes most people’s notice; however, the environmental footprint of data centers, the internet’s storage hardware, is very real. Indeed, the term “cloud” — meaning platforms where data can be stored or sent online — is misleading. As Microsoft’s former Data Center Manager Mike Manos says, “There’s not really anything white or fluffy about it.”

The industry has seen rapid growth that shows no signs of slowing down. Christian Belady of Microsoft has projected that annual global spending on data center construction will reach $78 billion by 2020, a $28 billion increase in just under 10 years. Faced with the inevitable surge of data centers and accompanying pollution increase, it is necessary for governments to encourage renewable energy supplies as companies transparently share design innovations for more efficiency. So far, business interests have not provided proper incentive to move toward clean energy; therefore, government regulators must encourage data centers’ transition from coal power to cleaner sources.

Data centers consume 1.5% to 2% of global electricity, and up to 3% in the U.S. — a number that will surely rise as the cloud continues expanding. These complexes must be kept sufficiently cool to prevent overheating, so the utility bill is understandably high; just one of Apple’s massive iCenters consumes the electrical equivalent of 80,000 homes.

Tech giants like Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, and Microsoft have a natural incentive to cut costs and make their complexes run efficiently. Design innovations have helped, like using cold outside air (especially in northern states) for “free cooling” instead of chillers. However, as a Greenpeace study pointed out, this hardly addresses the larger problem of how clean the energy is. Over half of the companies surveyed rely on coal 50% to 80% of the time. Data centers in emerging markets mostly rely on diesel fuel.

Companies’ reluctance to share details about their data center designs with competitors is self-defeating; they could all benefit from cutting-edge technology that helps the Earth. Greenpeace released its first study on “dirty data centers” in April. While the study was a great first step toward increasing competitiveness for cleaner resources, many companies received near-failing grades for transparency.

Facebook — which received a "D" for transparency and criticism for its heavy use of coal — is surprisingly leading the way to transparency with the April announcement that it would share plans through open-source designs. The rest of the industry should respond and share its designs with competitors, if not from public pressure, then from regulatory pressure. The public deserves to know the environmental footprint of its favorite products and services. Products like sunscreen already receive grades for their efficiency; internet companies should be similarly ranked. Many online services are so indistinguishable that these rankings could help steer the environmentally conscious to the more environmentally friendly products (therefore increasing public pressure on companies).

Governments may actually be the worst offenders of progress in telecommunications. State and federal governments around the world have encouraged facilities to be built in areas with the dirtiest energy resources. For example, North Carolina relies predominantly on coal, yet it has become a data center hub, in part, because it has promised Google, Apple, and Facebook hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks. Despite economic interests, states and countries need to encourage growth where energy is cleanest, like Oregon and Washington’s hydroelectricity.

The internet has changed the way we communicate, shop, travel, and read, almost exclusively in favor of reducing our environmental footprint. The telecommunications industry still has a long way to go in increasing transparency and making environmentally conscious decisions about energy resources. Our reliance on coal-powered electricity should not replace other bad habits.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons