Energy efficient Data Center ≠ Green Data Center

GreenDC“Many IT companies are simply  choosing to attach their modern information factories to some of the dirtiest sources of electricity, supplied by some of the dirtiest utilities on the planet” says Greenpeace.

In their latest reportHow green is your cloud?’, Greenpeace has criticized the cloud computing industry saying that cloud providers “are all rapidly expanding without adequate regard to source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds.”

In response to the report, Urs Hoelzle Google’s Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure in a statement published in the New York Times said that: The company welcomed the Greenpeace report and believed that it would intensify the industry’s focus on renewable energy.  Where as Apple and Amazon raises questions about the credibility of the estimates in the Greenpeace report, and illustrates the difficulty of seeking to estimate data center power usage

The discussion on how accurate and valid the estimates in the report are is indeed important but the real problem which is addressed shouldn’t be missed and that is; if an energy efficient data center  equals an green data center.

In the data center world the last two years much attention is given to the usage of PUE as a KPI for energy efficiency. PUE has served its goal to get a rough indication of the energy efficiency of a data center but it has its limitations. For example if servers that were not being used are shut down this can lead to a bigger PUE. But the biggest flaw, from a green IT perspective, in using the PUE is that there is no relation to the Carbon emission based on the electricity that is being used.

This CO2 emission flaw was already addressed in 2010 by Eirikur Hrafnsson CEO  of  Greenqloud (see blog Greenqloud propose green PUE ) and later by the Green Grid with a white paper on the Carbon Usage Effectiveness (CUE) metric.

Energy efficiency and carbon emission are mixed-up. You can be very energy inefficient and still have zero carbon emission and vice versa you can be very energy-efficient and still have a large carbon emission. Therefore cloud providers and data center operators must look not only at how efficiently they are using electricity, but also the sources of electricity that they are choosing, a detail that many companies are unwilling to disclose on their own. The energy sources of the power grid isn’t the only energy issue. A lot of data centers are using diesel generators as back up or are using generators because of  sub-standard or non-existent grid connection. The claim of green Cloud Computing services and green data centers can only be proven if the providers are more transparent about their energy sources.

If operators neglect carbon emission, dont care because it are external costs, it is “out of scope” for their company or they feel they are not directly responsible, it will come back to them like a boomerang. Resilience to a changing climate demands for decarburization of the energy sources we are using to ensure sustainability. If carbon emission wont be reduced, the government will use rigorous policy instruments to charge for this external costs.

As rightly stated in the Greenpeace report, to create a  more sustainable data center there are several steps that can be taken:

  • Power purchase agreements for renewable energy; Many operators s are recognizing that their influence and market power give them the opportunity and responsibility to demand clean energy investments. Operators can take charge of their electricity supply chain by signing long-term contracts to buy renewable electricity from a specific source through a utility or renewable energy developer via a power purchase agreement (PPA) to help drive renewable electricity onto the grid.
  • Onsite renewable energy;  Operators can install renewable energy on site to generate power for their own operations. For many facilities however, it may be difficult technically or economically to power a significant portion of a large data center with on-site renewable energy. This of course depends on the scale of the facility and the available renewable resources. However, companies are increasingly exploring onsite investments that can help provide better protection against electricity price volatility and, with onsite solar, can help shave electricity demand at the most expensive time of the day. In one of his latest blogs Christian Belady, general manager Data Center Services Microsoft, goes one step further. He raised the question  “Why do data centers need to be connected to a dirty, expensive, unreliable electrical grid?” and gave the answer: “They don’t and they don’t want to be either. Integrating a data center directly into the power plant — what we are calling our Data Plant program — will allow a data center to pick its sustainable fuel source and shield itself from grid volatility.”
  • Location strategy for renewable energy; The current and projected supply of clean electricity varies significantly between nations and regions, and renewable energy growth is largely determined by the energy and investment policies in those places and how the utilities and electricity markets are structured. Given the scale and long-lived nature of data centers, in order to ensure that the supply of clean energy can keep pace with IT’s rapidly growing demand, companies need to make a corporate commitment to engage in energy policy decisions in regions where they establish operations.

Knowing by measuring, managing by knowing

There has been a notable absence of  CUE reporting under companies. An important issue that has to be solved is that a lot of companies don’t know their carbon emission because they don’t measure it. And if you can not measure it, you can not improve it. Proper measures can only be made if there is a clear understanding of the problem. Therefore operators must begin with monitoring and reporting the carbon intensity of their data centers under the ‘new’ Carbon Utilization Effectiveness (CUE) standard.

UPDATE  May 5th

The Green Grid made an official response to the Greenpeace report in short The Green Grid is stating that:

Any study or initiative that raises awareness around the important issues of reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency and sustainability in the data center and cloud computing sectors is something that The Green Grid supports”  and “We welcome the public interest Greenpeace has generated around this report and also encourage the IT industry to think about the complex idea of a ‘green data center’ in a holistic manner. By properly leveraging metrics like PUE, CUE and WUE alongside other models like The Green Grid’s Data Center Maturity Model, organizations can better understand the broader picture of their energy ecosystems and take steps to become more efficient and sustainable both inside and outside of the data center. Similarly, we encourage organizations of all sizes to actively participate in this important conversation by becoming members The Green Grid.