Data warehouses will store over 170 zettabytes of information by 2025, propelling the global data warehouse construction market to a worth of over $50B. All this data may be good for communication, globalization, technological innovation, and information sharing, but it’s not so great for the planet itself. Over 3% of all global electricity consumption comes from data centers, and this 3% contributes the same volume of greenhouse gases as fuel from the aviation sector does. Meanwhile, as more and more of the world joins the Internet, and global Internet consumption grows, data warehouses will become an ever-greater contributor to global warming, unless tech giants do something about it.
NewtonX delved into what the tech sector is doing (and not doing) to minimize its eco footprint. The NewtonX environmental vertical conducted four interviews and 100 surveys to data warehouse executives and managers at the biggest tech companies and largest warehouse providers in the world. The data and insights in this article are sourced from the NewtonX report.
How Tech Giants Are Turning Dirty Energy Into Clean Energy
Despite the responsibility that tech giants bear for data warehouse emissions, most of them are making significant effort to curb dirty fossil fuels. In fact, Google has been the largest purchaser of corporate renewable energy on the planet for the past two years, and purchased enough renewable energy to match its consumption. The second largest purchaser is Amazon, followed by the DoD, Microsoft, and Facebook. The tech companies tend to rely the most on wind energy, and many of them have their own wind and solar farms exclusively built for the company’s energy consumption.
Despite these efforts, the warehouses are not actually powered by renewable energy — at least not fully. Tech giants cites access to renewables in the geographic locations where they operate as a major barrier, and Google has dedicated itself to opening up the market and making it more accessible — both for Google and for smaller tech companies that don’t have the same financial resources for clean energy investment.
Because of geographic barriers, Apple, Google, and Facebook have all built data centers intentionally close to affordable renewable sources. Apple has a data warehouse in Prineville, Oregon powered by a hydroelectric project the company bought to supply its warehouse with renewable energy. Similarly, Facebook built a massive data warehouse next to a hydroelectric plant in Sweden, where the climate tends to be cold and there’s ample access to wind and hydrogen power sources. Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have also either built warehouses in Sweden, or have bought land with the intent of building warehouses.
However, despite tech companies’ efforts to invest in and utilize clean energy, they are still responsible for an enormous volume of energy emissions. To curb this, tech companies are also doing what they do best: maximizing efficiency.
Tech Companies Doing What They Do Best: Maximizing Efficiency
Google has been a pioneer in efforts to leverage AI for heating and cooling in data centers. In 2016, the company announced that its DeepMind Machine Learning-powered system was able to reduce a center’s cooling bill by up to 40% by optimizing heating and cooling based on myriad factors including the weather and internal machinery changes. However, the company has struggled to roll its system out at scale, in part because the operations of every data warehouse are significantly different.
Another strategy that companies are experimenting with is using water instead of air to cool machinery. Microsoft, for instance, submerged a small data center under the water off the coast of Scotland. The warehouse runs exclusively on locally produced renewable energy, and and releases excess heat into the ocean. Google has also filed a patent for a water-based data warehouse, but has yet to act to on it. However, critics of underwater data centers point to the fact that since the center releases hot water into the ocean, it could affect local sea life.
Getting Ahead of the Crisis: Why Tech Giants Are Leaping Into Renewables
The global tech market is expected to grow by another 4% this year — accounting for billions of gigabytes of data. The largest tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, realize that as their energy consumption grows, and accounts for an ever-increasing share of global energy use, they will come under scrutiny for how efficiently and ethically they are sourcing and using this energy. To boot, renewable energy sources can be more cost-effective than traditional energy sources, and are likely to become more so with tax benefits and incentives from local governments.