Data center emissions and innovations
Updated: May 26
Data centers and internet services are on the rise and so are the emissions from data centers. Today we take a deeper look at data center emissions and innovations by top 3 tech companies; Amazon, Microsoft and AWS.
What to expect today:
Understanding data center emissions
Demand for internet services is rising exponentially. Global internet traffic surged by over 40% in 2020, driven by increased video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming and social networking. This growth comes on top of the past decade’s already-rising demand for digital services: since 2010, the number of internet users worldwide has doubled, while global internet traffic has increased 15-fold, or ~30% per year.
By now, it’s a cliché that data is the new oil — the high-tech fuel of 21st-century economic progress. Unlike oil, we often think of data as having no physical form and, therefore, no environmental impact. This couldn’t be more mistaken.
What is the impact?
According to the International Energy Agency, data centers consume approximately 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, or nearly 1% of global electricity demand, contributing to 0.3% of all global CO2 emissions. This excludes energy used for cryptocurrency mining, which was ~100 TWh in 2020. With big data exploding and computing needs swiftly growing, these figures are only expected to rise without proactive steps to reduce data centers’ energy consumption.
Where is the electricity used in data centers?
The simple answer is computational power and cooling. The servers require large amounts of energy for computing. This energy is dissipated as heat within a relatively small area. And because the IT equipment is sensitive to high temperatures, the heat must be continuously removed. The breakup of energy usage in a typical data center is as follows:
70% on IT equipment (hardware)
25% on cooling systems
5% on lighting and other auxiliary sources
Comparing Amazon, Microsoft and Google
The top three cloud providers - Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud - account for approximately 61% of all rentable computing services. While all three of them are moving towards procuring energy for their cloud infrastructure through renewable energy and report to customers on their carbon emission footprint through the use of their respective cloud services, in this section, we look at some innovations by these three companies to try bold ideas to cut down emissions from data centers.
Amazon Web Services (32% market share)
Amazon is focusing on powering its cloud through renewable energy, in line with its goal of transitioning to renewable energy for all Amazon operations by 2025. In June 2021, Amazon became the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the U.S. Already the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in Europe, Amazon’ now procures roughly 10 gigawatts of energy, enough to power 2.5 million US homes. What is even more commendable is that most of these are greenfield projects that Amazon is undertaking to power its operations thus boosting private investment in the space.
Microsoft Azure (19% market share)
In 2020, Microsoft completed its Phase 2 of Project Natick, deploying data centers on the ocean floor (pictured above), lowering cooling and other energy costs. Although still a pilot project, the prototype has shown some promising results after being deployed for 2 years under water in the Northern Isles 117 ft deep on the seafloor. The failure rate of servers was reduced to 1/8th and used significantly lesser energy for cooling and was completely supplied through renewable energy sources.
Google Cloud (7% market share)
Google uses machine learning models to continuously optimize its data centers for energy usage. The models have been piloted at multiple facilities and have produced a 40% reduction in energy used for cooling and 15% reduction in overall energy overhead. An algorithm trained on historical weather data, for example, knows how to tweak a data center’s cooling system in response to the environment. The system samples various weather conditions every 5 minutes so if there’s a sudden drop in temperature, the facility knows to devote less energy to cooling the servers.
While data center emissions may represent a small proportion of carbon emissions globally, tech companies leading the way might just create the flywheel effect to inspire more companies to make their operations carbon neutral. In addition, the new innovations in cooling and higher demand for renewable energy might force power and gas companies to adopt newer solutions.
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