While the report was broadly critical of cloud computing, it did recognize some positives like Yahoo locating its facilities near clean energy hot spots and using coal-based power for just 18.3 percent of its portfolio, and Google encouraging wind and solar projects by creating the subsidiary Google Energy that can buy electricity directly from independent renewable power producers (IPPs).
Green campaigners have criticised Apple, Facebook and Google for establishing operations in North Carolina, a state fast becoming a prime location for data centers. Particularly in the western part of the state, the geography is inviting, the risk of natural disasters is low and telecommunications infrastructure is already in place. Similarly, environmentalists have attacked Facebook’s decision to set up a new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. They say the 151,000-square-foot building (which is planned to double in size) should have been in an area powered by clean energy. Instead, it will be powered by PacifiCorp, which depends mostly on coal and natural gas.
Facebook defends the site, which opened in April 2011, pointing to its robust efforts to minimise the center’s effects on the environment. Southern-central Oregon’s low-humidity climate allows the building to draw in outside air, process it through layered filters and use it to cool the space and machines. Facebook says the Prineville site uses 38 percent less energy than existing facilities.
The Cloud and Renewables
But companies shouldn’t have to sacrifice cost-effectiveness to factor energy sources into data-centre siting, says Greenpeace, noting that many of the companies involved have sufficient resources to locate their operations on more sustainable ground.
Indeed, the future does appear to offer certain synergies between the cloud and renewables. Renewable energy also has relatively constant costs, which can help fix the marginal cost of computation — an important metric. Moreover, demand shifting opportunities in data centres are significant. Some computation, such as data back-up, can be easily carried out at night and can be supplied to countries on the other side of the globe, widening the cloud’s potential.
Data centres also lose up to 96 percent of the energy coming into the building, losing efficiency in cooling the room, the servers, and keeping servers idle. Using the cloud can help in all these areas.
Several leading American tech companies have already made large investments in clean-sourced data centers. Yahoo has an operation in Washington state that draws from a power supply with renewables making up an estimated 88.5 percent.
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