A decade ago, The New York Times released an expose-style article painting a brutal picture of the effects of mission critical infrastructure, namely data centers, on the environment. One sentence from this Sept. 22, 2012 article titled “Power, Pollution and the Internet” sums up the lengthy piece: “a yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.”
It goes on to say:
• Data centers waste 90% or more of the electricity they pull off the grid.
• Data centers rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust.
• Large data centers contain banks of huge, spinning flywheels or thousands of lead-acid batteries.
True to the adage, “bad news gets ratings and sells papers,” hundreds of reader comments ensued. If a top-tier news outlet has written an article praising the data center industry’s efforts to protect the environment, we haven’t seen it. This article was a big reputational hit early on.
The New York Times article seemed to spur community leaders, everyday citizens, regulators and government officials toward predisposition to resist new data center developments, regardless of environmental accomplishments and site-specific commitments. This was a turning point where onerous restrictions became mainstream and site selection and project development got really complicated.
Turning the Tide
Our industry’s impact on the environment is a serious issue. Environmental responsibility guides the way we design, construct, and operate data centers. Yet, the fear narrative and negative perception looms large and is a consistent challenge when it comes to developing new projects. So, how do we share the advances our industry has made with respect to sustainable, environmentally neutral operations? One key is, singing from the same song sheet.
Data released in November 2021 by the International Energy Agency shows the industry has done a tremendous job of serving needs without consuming more power. It’s a verified and impressive fact we can be proud of. And it’s time that we, as an industry, get a little more vocal about our accomplishments.
As any industry, we can build greater awareness of the impressive efforts to add capacity without adding to the environmental footprint by consistently balancing the narrative and seeding positive messages. Consistent communication is key to being heard and we have plenty to croon about.
While every company has its own unique bragging rights and specifics of how it’s adding capacity without drawing down natural resources, there are three universal truths about datacenters and the environment that deserve more recognition.
1. Virtual connectivity reduces carbon output.
The pandemic tested and changed how the way business gets done. With work from home meeting going virtual, carbon emissions from by planes, trains and automobiles took a nosedive. This would not have been possible without healthy and robust data streams.
A comprehensive study of the effects of the pandemic on the atmosphere revealed that:
- Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 5.4% in 2020.
- Pandemic-induced drops in NOx quickly led to a global reduction in ozone.
- Methane in the atmosphere dropped by 10% (according to one study-need citation).
2. Data centers are a boon to renewable energy development.
Most data centers have moved to exclusive use of renewable energy, delivering the large-scale, ongoing contracts needed to build more renewable generation capacity and invest in renewable power storage solutions and grid improvements. This industry has driven the demand needed to expand green energy solutions and capacity.
3. Campuses come with ecological benefits.
Data centers aren’t 25-story, hulking buildings with throngs of workers creating congested city streets. While the acreage can be significant, it’s usually a low-rise building in a far-flung place that is visually unobtrusive. Developers today are making impressive commitments to protect, improve and enhance areas around campuses by improving wildlife habitats, building hike and bike trails, planting pollinator plants, and improving water treatment and storm water drainage to fortify cities against extreme weather.
These mission-critical facilities are not a threat to the environment. They’re enablers with real, significant benefits to communities and the environment, addressing the needs of our rapidly evolving world in an environmentally responsible way. There are a lot of reasons to welcome data center development done right. Let’s talk about it and see if we can chip away at negative perceptions by being more vocal, singing from the same song sheet, and breaking down barriers to responsible data infrastructure development.