Pressure is on to make data centers green

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Articles - June 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010

The pressure is on for Intel, Amazon, Facebook and Google to make their power-guzzling data centers green.

BY ADRIANNE JEFFRIES

 

0610_Data01
Locals reacted with shock and glee when Facebook revealed in January that it would be building its first data center in humble Prineville. A data center is not inherently exciting — it’s a warehouse stuffed with computers — but the arrival of a cool, fast-growing Internet company to this former mill town was an unexpected coup, and the timing could not have been better: Crook County struggled with an unemployment rate of 20% during the worst of the recession. WELCOME FACEBOOK quickly appeared on marquees at local businesses.

“This is certainly a first for Prineville. This is one of the largest economic development projects in the history of Central Oregon,” says Jason Carr, a manager at Economic Development for Central Oregon, a nonprofit that worked on the deal.

Carr says Facebook has already brought business to local restaurants, hotels, hardware stores and contractors. He now gets calls from companies who heard about the Facebook project in the Wall Street Journal and suddenly want to know more about Prineville. The “Prineville Data Center” page on Facebook has about 4,000 fans, dozens of whom posted thank-you notes, hearty welcomes and job inquiries in the comments section. One commenter from Bend wrote, “Honestly, as a Central Oregonian, how can anyone think this is anything but wonderful?”

More than 400,000 people disagree. That’s how many have joined a Facebook campaign opposing the data center, part of a full green guilt assault launched by Greenpeace less than a month after Facebook broke ground.

The offense?

Coal.

The digital age is supposed to be a greener era. Instead of driving to work, we telecommute. Instead of killing trees, we send emails appended with “please don’t print this.” But despite the analogy, the Internet is not a cloud. Every bit of data lives on a hard drive somewhere that is always on. Electricity generation is the leading source of carbon emissions in the U.S., and data centers are notorious power hogs; Facebook estimates its new data center will consume between 30 and 40 megawatts of electricity, says Carr, enough to power all the homes in Prineville more than twice over. That would make it one of the largest power users in Oregon.

A data center’s environmental impact is more than just energy use. These digital age factories can use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day for cooling. Copper wiring can exceed 60 miles. Data centers produce potentially toxic e-waste, which Oregon law does not require them to recycle (although most companies say they do). But energy use is the biggest issue for environmentalists. It’s also a big issue for huge technology companies that would rather be renowned for amazing breakthroughs than for burning coal and sucking rivers dry.

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