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Santa Clara’s cheap electricity attracts computer data centers with large carbon footprints

By Erik Silk | 16 Feb 2011

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CoreSite is one of many data center companies currently expanding their operations in Santa Clara. (Photo: Erik Silk)

It’s a quiet morning in Santa Clara, but at the campus of a data center owned by CoreSite Realty, activity is humming. An enormous crane slowly moves steel beams behind a worker who explains that he and his team are working on a new, larger data center facility to replace the older, existing one.

A data center houses computer systems and Internet servers. Centers sell server services to anyone who needs a “host” for a website. CoreSite reported on its website that the expansion of its current data center would more than double its size, from 229,600 square feet to 496,250. That would likely double its energy consumption.

CoreSite is only one of many data centers within the city of Santa Clara, which is unique in the number of data centers it hosts. That number will likely increase as more people use the Internet and adopt cloud computing, in which shared servers provide data to computers on demand.

But according to projections and research in the field of electrical engineering, this aggressive growth in data centers may not be sustainable.

“Attacking this data center consumption issue is really about green technology,” said Gary Shambat, a researcher at Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering Department. In particular, he is looking at upgrading data transfer methods with optical arrays, which would reduce the energy cost significantly.

Shambat said centers consume approximately 1.5 percent of all energy in the United States. Although the owners of many facilities are using environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar and wind power, more often than they used to, those trends are not keeping up with the growth in data centers.

“For example, solar production in the United States is only about .04 percent of energy production, and unless there’s a giant breakthrough there, that’s not improving,” Shambat noted. “Because it accounts for a large fraction of our energy usage, a few percent is actually quite a bit,” Shambat said.

Studies show that data centers do indeed leave a large carbon footprint, which is a measure of the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the industry. In this case, the vast majority of these emissions come from the utilities that supply data centers with an immense amount of electricity.

The Uptime Institute, a consortium of companies working to increase the efficiency of data centers, reports that carbon dioxide emissions attributed to American data centers in 2010 were greater than the CO2 output for all of Argentina or the Netherlands. They also found that carbon dioxide emissions associated with data centers will quadruple between 2010 and 2020, at which point the data center industry will be responsible for more CO2 than the airline industry, which spews CO2 from the engines of every plane in the air.

“Many tricks are being employed by these companies that control these data centers to try to cut down on their energy use,” Shambat said.

CoreSite is one of these companies. Representatives from CoreSite did not return repeated phone calls or respond to numerous e-mails, but the company reports on its website that it intends to use outside air to cool the indoor space, where the data center equipment can generate large amounts of heat. Cooling would normally be done by air conditioners, which would use even more power.

But why are so many data centers in Santa Clara? Half a dozen companies, including Digital Realty Trust and Quality Technology Services are all active in the city and have been expanding their operations recently. Assistant City Manager Carol McCarthy, using information supplied by multiple city departments, said that it has to do with the city’s inexpensive power.

“Santa Clara is unique in that we are a municipally-owned utility that provides highly reliable and low-cost electric service,” McCarthy said. “Our average electric rate is the lowest in California.” She added that the lower electricity costs have been bringing data centers into Santa Clara since even before 1999, during the “dot-com bubble.”

“Production of electrical energy and use of emergency generators both contribute to potential air quality and greenhouse gas emission impacts,” McCarthy also acknowledged. She added, however, that recent changes to the California Environmental Quality Act mean that all data center companies need to determine where their direct and indirect contributions to greenhouse gases will come from, and the effects of their developments on the environment.

Still, cities nonetheless need new businesses to generate tax and other revenues. With respect to CoreSite’s current, project, McCarthy noted that the city was satisfied with the small extent to which the company’s development will affect the environment in the long term—even though CoreSite, by doubling the size of its facility, will likely contribute substantially more CO2 emissions to the atmosphere as a result.

Despite the environmental cost, data centers are a necessary part of the digital age. Shambat said Internet traffic is projected to double every two years, along with the amount of data that needs to be stored and the power that those data centers will consume.

The industry says efforts are ongoing to make these facilities more energy-efficient, but that may not be enough to compensate for the enormous projected growth.

Even so, CoreSite and others march on with their fast-paced expansion and development, to provide more and more data-center support to an increasingly connected America. CoreSite Senior Vice President of Data Centers Billie Haggard said in a press release that CoreSite was thankful to the city of Santa Clara for allowing the company to “support economic growth in the region in a responsible, energy-efficient manner.”

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