Large data centers have been increasingly in the news for the huge amounts of energy they consume to process the billlions of tweets, videos and data that travels across the Internet.
Green data centers are expected to grow to a $41.4 billion business by 2015. GE acquired a company that specializes in energy efficiency for data centers for $520 million this year.
Energy consumption by large data centers doubled from 2000-2005, according to a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report to Congress.
The EPA forecast that energy use would double again between 2005-2010, but that hasn’t happened, according to a Stanford University study requested by the New York Times.
Electricity use has risen dramatically, however, rising 56% worldwide during that period, and 36% in the US alone.
In 2010, data centers consumed 1.1%-1.5% of the world’s electricity, and 1.7-2.2% in the US, report author professor Johnathan Koomey says.
Although the industry has made strides in building energy efficient data centers (as predicted in EPA’s 2007 report), the lower-than-expected energy consumption was driven primarily by the installation of fewer computer servers than expected.
The New York Times attributes slower-than-expected growth in the industry to the financial crisis of 2008 and the use of computer server virtualization, a software solution that reduces the need for additional hardware systems.
Even so, the build-out of data centers is continuing at an unprecedented pace, as more computations – needed for things like streaming music and video editing – move off of desktop computers and into the so-called "cloud" of online data centers.
As a result, industry analysts suggest data centers might still reach the energy demands predicted by the EPA – just at a later time.
EPA estimated that US data centers would consume roughly 100 billion kilowatt hours of energy at an annual cost of $7.4 billion by 2010. And by 2011, they were expected to use 12 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 15 large, coal-fired power plants.
Interestingly, while Google is undoubtedly the highest profile owner of data centers, its uses less than 1% of the total electricity used by data centers worldwide. And the company is increasingly using wind energy to power them. In April, Google signed a second power purchase agreement (PPA) to increase the share of electricity it consumes in its data centers from wind.
A Greenpeace study, How Dirty is Your Data: A Look at the Energy Choices that Power Cloud Computing, demonstrates that much of the energy fueling the Internet comes from fossil fuels, particularly coal.
Read the Greenpeace report: