Data centre energy consumption set to soar

The energy demands of computer data centres are rising and expected to nearly double by 2020. While manufacturers and operators begin to improve energy efficiency, the Market Transformation Programme recommends that data centres become a priority for action under the energy-using products Directive.

The energy consumption of data centres – used to house heavy-duty computer equipment for applications such as websites, databases and off-site backup systems – has risen rapidly in recent years with advancing computing technology.

In August a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, published at the behest of Congress, revealed that the energy consumption of US data centres in 2006 accounted for approximately 1.5% of national electricity demand, a total of 61 terrawatt hours (TWh).1 Assuming that current trends continue, this will increase to 100 TWh by 2011, the US EPA said.

Projections for the UK by the government’s Market Transformation Programme (MTP) suggest that the energy consumed this year will be 3.7 TWh, rising to 4.4 TWh in 2010 and 7.2 TWh in 2020. However, the figures do not take into account extra energy requirements such as cooling systems and lighting, which would see these estimates double.

Such growth poses a clear risk to energy supplies and greenhouse emissions targets. While it works to improve its evidence base, MTP has recommended that servers be made a priority for action under the energy-using products Directive.

The US EPA report recommends a series of actions, including the development of energy efficiency procurement specifications; an energy rating system and a new national centre for data centre best practice, but there has been little action to date.

The European Commission has attempted to make some progress through its recent voluntary code of practice.2 The code is run in conjunction with the MTP, manufacturers and industry initiatives such as the Green Grid. But these voluntary codes have had varying success (see pp 24 ).

However, burgeoning energy bills mean that a growing number of firms are beginning to take note. According to a survey by US data centre operator Digital Reality Trust, 55 of 100 US companies worth at least $1 billion have programmes to improve the energy efficiency of their data centres.

Some UK firms are also starting to take action. Conscious of its consumption of around 0.7% of UK electricity, BT is trying to improve the efficiency of the 80 data centres it operates. It is reducing the number of servers it runs, increasing the utilisation of those remaining and is considering alternative cooling options. The project is part of BT’s attempts to reduce its carbon footprint to 20% of its 1996 figure.

Responding to this growing interest from clients, IT firms are starting to compete on the issue.

As part of its $1 billion project “The Big Green”, IBM is replacing 3,900 small servers with 30 mainframe computers. It expects this new setup to use about 80% less energy than the current arrangement. Hewlett Packard has recently launched its own lower energy consumption servers, which according to the company deliver “unprecedented performance and energy efficiency”.

Sun Microsystems meanwhile has launched a series of ‘eco kits’ to share its experience of “greening” data centres after it reduced its own centres’ energy consumption by 61%. It has already trimmed $1.1 million in energy costs – some 4,100 tons of CO2 per year – and is expecting further work to knock off a further $1 million in energy costs.

However, Sun warned that many IT chiefs remain blissfully unaware of the energy impacts of data centres. Sun’s vice president of eco-responsibility Dave Douglas said that most IT chiefs “don’t even see an energy bill, which makes little sense given that data centres can consume a significant portion of a company’s total energy draw.”

  • A report by consultancy Brown-Wilson has highlighted the increasing financial risk that corporate outsourcing providers carry if they are not perceived as environmentally sound.3 Brown-Wilson found that environmental factors have been added to contracts of 21% of US and European buyers of outsourced services this year. Of those surveyed, 94% planned to add such considerations when renegotiating contracts.
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