U.S. Data Centers: Cool IT Down

In response to a request from Congress the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a report which, “assesses current trends in energy use and energy costs of data centers and servers in the U.S. and outlines existing and emerging opportunities for improved energy efficiency.” The report was released on August 2 and suggests there is both room and need for drastic improvements.

According to the report, “The U.S. data center industry is in the midst of a major growth period stimulated by increasing demand for data processing and storage.” Several factors are contributing to this growth. The factors include, but are not limited to: the increased use of electronic transactions in financial services, the growing use of internet communication and entertainment, the shift to electronic medical records for healthcare, the growth in global commerce and services, and the adoption of satellite navigation and electronic shipment tracking in transportation. This expansion has led to “significant growth in the number of data center servers,” and a corresponding increase in the energy needed to both run and cool these data centers. The EPA report estimates a doubling of energy consumption in the data center infrastructure in the past five years.

Just as the need for an increased number of data centers led to more of them being developed, their existence, and corresponding power consumption, creates “important implications.” At the top of the list of considerations is cost. There is the direct cost of maintaining the existing infrastructure and its energy consumption as well as the cost of continuing to expand and develop new data centers. Secondly, there is the strain “on the existing power grid to meet the increased electricity demand,” and on the environment due to “increased emissions, including greenhouse gases, from electricity generation.” As the IT community has become more aware of the situation, “there has been mounting interest in opportunities for energy efficiency in this sector.” Such interest is of extreme importance, because of “the potential for rapid growth in direct energy use in this sector and the resulting impact on both the power grid and U.S. industries.”

The estimated 61 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) that the sector consumed in 2006, and which cost it about $4.5 billion, represents 1.5 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Perhaps to put this into perspective, the report notes that, “This estimated level of electricity consumption is more than the electricity consumed by the nation’s color televisions and similar to the amount of electricity consumed by approximately 5.8 million average U.S. households (or about five percent of the total U.S. housing stock).” The federal government’s role in all this amounted to approximately 6 billion kWh and cost about $450 million, 10 percent of the total U.S. consumption and expenditure in the sector.

Since 2000, the numbers have not taken a turn for the better, quite the opposite, “The energy use of the nation’s servers and data centers in 2006 is estimated to be more than double the electricity that was consumed for this purpose in 2000.” Furthermore, unless significant adjustments are made, the trend could easily continue.

In creating the report the EPA developed, “five-year projections for future energy use.” According to the report, the five-year, “time horizon was chosen for the scenarios because this is the period for which equipment shipment forecasts were available, and a period for which change in the rapidly evolving IT sector can be reasonably forecasted.” Using these projections, “Two baseline scenarios were analyzed to estimate expected energy use in the absence of expanded energy-efficiency efforts.” The first of the scenarios, the ‘current efficiency trends’ scenario “projected the current energy use trajectory of U.S. servers and data centers based on recently observed efficiency trends for IT equipment and site infrastructure systems.” The second, the ‘historical trends’ scenario “did not reflect these current energy efficiency trends but simply extrapolated observed 2000 to 2006 energy-use trends into the future.”

Under current efficiency trends, the better of the two scenarios, “national energy consumption by servers and data centers could nearly double again in another five years.” This means consumption of more than 100 billion kWh and an expenditure of $7.4 billion in annual electricity costs. Such a trend cannot scale with the current energy infrastructure. The report notes that, “The peak load on the power grid from these servers and data centers is currently estimated to be approximately 7 gigawatts (GW), equivalent to the output of about 15 baseload power plants. If current trends continue, this demand would rise to 12 GW by 2011, which would require an additional 10 power plants.”

While the EPA concedes that its “estimates of data center energy use should be considered approximate because limited data are available on current data center energy use, and there is significant uncertainty about the effects of future technology trends,” it believes that, ” these estimates and projections illustrate the magnitude of energy use in data centers and the need for effective energy-efficiency strategies.” Keeping all this in mind it is obvious why the EPA reports that, “The energy used by the nation’s servers and data centers is significant.”

A more complete version of this post, including links to market research, can be found at the website of Analyst Views Weekly.

More information on this topic can be found at Northern Light’s Software, Computers & Services Market Intelligence Center.

And in the following articles:

EPA: Power Usage in Data Centers Could Double by 2011 ars technica, August 6, 2007
The Environmental Protection Agency released a new report on energy efficiency in data centers—and the results are electrifying (groan). According to the government’s best estimates, energy usage at data centers has doubled between 2000 and 2006, and it’s poised to double again by 2011. The government has plenty of reasons to care about this, but one of the most obvious is financial. If growth continues at current levels, the federal government alone will be shelling out $740 million for data center electrical bills in 2011.

‘No Cooling Necessary’ Data Centers Coming? eWeek, August 3, 2007
Panelists in a discussion on green data centers here Aug. 1 at the fourth Always On Stanford Summit were asked whether they thought the future might bring data centers that no longer need cooling equipment, thus cutting back substantially on power draw. Somewhat surprisingly, the answer—across the board—was “yes.”

IBM Goes from Big Blue to Very Green ComputerWorld, August 31, 2007
IBM is drinking its own green Kool-Aid, embarking on a huge energy-conservation project to consolidate about 3,900 of its own servers in six locations around the world, reducing power use by about 80% and saving $250 million on electricity, support and software over five years.

IBM Consolidates Its Own Data Centers Information Week, August 1, 2007
IBM on Wednesday said it has consolidated 3,900 computer servers in six locations worldwide onto about 30 refrigerator-sized mainframes running Linux, a move that the tech giant claims reduces computer-devoted floor space by 85% and will cut costs by $250 million.

Microsoft Building Green Data Center PC World, July 31, 2007
Microsoft Corp. is relying on green technologies in its newest data centers, including one in San Antonio where it is breaking ground on Monday. The San Antonio building, one of several in the works at various locations, will be 500,000 square feet and contain tens of thousands of servers, said Michael Manos, senior director of data centers at Microsoft. The company announced it would build the center in San Antonio earlier this year.

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