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Clean Energy-Powered Data Centers: Essential for digital civic fabric

Used with permission courtesy Wharton Energy Club

In his November 2018 presentation entitled “Civic Signals,” Eli Pariser defines this project’s foremost purpose as generating “positive health metrics for assessing digital civic fabric.” These metrics are to be used “to inform social platforms, and guide their development of algorithms or products,” and, eventually, these metrics would become a basis for evaluating tech firms. According to Pariser (2018),

“We recognize that defining a healthy society raises questions that have been debated for millennia. At the same time, platforms are shipping code based on their own answers to these questions today. We believe it’s important for more voices to join the conversation… We recognize that achieving some goals may not align with short-term (or longer term) revenue pressures. But we think identifying where those gaps exist is important.”

More specific qualification criteria for ‘civic signals’ for Pariser’s project are the following:

  1. Frequently mentioned in interviews and/or discussed in literature;
  2. Reasonably addressable by social media platforms;
  3. Within the scope of positive goals;
  4. Candidates for optimization across a platform – in some instances, what would be considered positive varies; and,
  5. Empirically connected with normative positive outcomes

In this article, I advocate for a specific “civic signal” that would generate massive benefits related to how the digital world affects society: Clean energy-powered data centers.

This article begins with a description of how clean energy-powered data centers meet Pariser’s qualification criteria, and then it continues to outline an implementation strategy.

Meeting Pariser’s “Civic Signal” Criteria

As of January 2015, 15 corporations had committed to 100% renewable electricity goals through RE100, an environmental nonprofit-led effort to drive corporate clean energy usage. Today, that number stands at 162. These RE100 companies are some of the largest in the world (Apple, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, etc.) and span many sectors, including social platforms (Facebook and Google) (RE100, 2019).

Clean energy entails numerous societal benefits, the most clear-cut of which are environmental and health. According to Union of Concerned Scientists (2017), burning of fossil fuels for electricity leads to 29 percent of total global warming emissions in the U.S. In addition, air and water pollution linked to fossil fuels like coal and natural gas include “breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, cancer, premature death, and a host of other serious problems” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017). Meanwhile, clean power sources yield virtually zero global warming emissions, and “wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2017).

At present, data centers – which are core to the business models of social platforms like Facebook and Google – are one of the world’s fastest growing sources of power consumption.  Jones (2018) projects data centers comprising about 8% of the world’s electricity demand by 2030, while Lima (2017) quotes studiesforecasting data centers contributing up to 20% of global electricity demand by 2025.

If not powered in a clean manner, data centers will become major causes environmental and health pollution. A massive amount of literature supports this claim. As will be described in more detail below, Google and Facebook leadership on this issue signal that it is “reasonably addressable by social media platforms.” Framed positively, relative to the present status quo, powering data centers with clean energy contributes to massive environmental, health, and water benefits. And what is considered “positive” is consistent across all social platforms.

In short, powering data centers with clean power qualifies as a worthwhile ‘civic signal,’ as it meets all criteria Pariser (2018) uses.

Implementation Strategy

To drive efforts towards clean energy-powered data centers, the U.S. Government should issue a regulatory mandate requiring that companies with operations in the U.S. power 100 percent of their data center-related electricity from clean sources by 2030. The design should include gradually increasing interim clean energy targets, akin to the design of California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (DSIRE, 2019).

The regulation must apply to all social platform companies that operate in the U.S., even if the data center is located outside of the U.S. This criteria evens the competitive landscape for both U.S. and international firms, and it ensures firms won’t simply construct data centers abroad. A new aspect of annual reporting would be a list of a company’s data centers and how they’re powered. Failure to comply would result in fines and naming and shaming.

Given the examples by Google and Facebook, the variety of compliance pathways, the quality support system, and the competitive prices for renewables relative to grid power, compliance with this mandate is entirely feasible.

Google’s first-in-class renewables efforts developed rapidly. The company signed its first long-term contract to buy renewables directly in 2010, and by 2017 their global operations, including both data centers and offices, were 100% powered by renewables (Google, 2018). Meanwhile, Facebook currently powers more than 50% of its operations with renewables, and its public target is 100 percent by 2020 (Spector, 2018).

For companies without the manpower of Google and Facebook, there is plenty of support. One source is Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center, a nonprofit built around communicating best practices and making it easier for corporations to go renewable. In addition, numerous client services and software companies like LevelTen Energy and Altenex specialize in enabling corporate renewables procurement.

Importantly, transitioning to renewables is not overly burdensome economically. According to investment banking stalwart Lazard, renewables are price competitive and legitimately cheaper in many locations without subsidies – in terms of all-in costs (termed ‘levelized cost of energy’) – relative to fossil fuels. Over the past decade, wind and solar prices have dropped 69% and 88%, respectively (Lazard, 2018).  

Furthermore, there are over a dozen methods of procuring renewable power – from onsite generation (ex. Solar panels on the roof), to offsite direct procurement (ex. Buying electricity from a solar farm that’s nearby but not onsite), to purchasing renewable energy credits (the rights to a third party’s credits for having generated power from renewables). One notable method is called a ‘synthetic power purchase agreement,’ whereby a company might use the inexpensive wind and solar power it buys in Texas, for example, to offset the power its data center in North Dakota uses (Clean Edge, Inc., 2017). This variety of options enables more cost-effective decisions.

Functionally, for smaller companies for which building one’s own data center versus renting data center space is a major decision, this mandate would only introduce a small tweak to decision-making criteria. Power costs and procurement are already major considerations (365 Data Centers, 2018). Under this mandate, corporations simply need to ensure that the data centers they use, whether rented or owned, are powered sustainably. If not, they would need to buy renewable energy credits.

Conclusion

Powering data centers using clean energy meets all of Pariser’s criteria to qualify as a worthwhile ‘civic signal.’ Data centers are on pace to account for between 8 and 20 percent of global power consumption by 2030. Without a concerted effort to power them with clean energy, the tech sector’s continued boom will exacerbate substantial environmental, water, and health pollution empirically linked to fossil fuel production.

Action towards this ‘civic signal’ should manifest as a mandate requiring all social platform companies with operations in the U.S. to power 100 percent of their data centers with clean energy by 2030. Given the examples of Google and Facebook, support systems, economics, and variety of compliance mechanisms, this mandate would be both achievable and socially desirable.

Sources

365 Data Centers (2018). “Data Center Colocation Build vs. Buy.” Available at: https://www.365datacenters.com/portfolio-items/data-center-colocation-build-vs-buy/

Clean Edge Inc., Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) (January, 2017). “Corporate Clean Energy Procurement Index: State Leadership & Rankings.” Available at: https://www.itic.org/dotAsset/f9040bd1-7681-455a-9a64-5a518c16551d.pdf

DSIRE (February, 2019). “Renewables Portfolio Standard: California.” Available at: http://programs.dsireusa.org/system/program/detail/840

Jones, Nicola (September, 2018). “How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity.” Nature. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y

Google (2018). “100% renewable is just the beginning.” Sustainability. Available at: https://sustainability.google/projects/announcement-100/

Lima, Joao Marques (December, 2017). “Data Centres Of The World Will Consume 1/5 Of Earth’s Power By 2025.” Data Economy. Available at: https://data-economy.com/data-centres-world-will-consume-1-5-earths-power-2025/

Pariser, Eli (November, 2018). “Civic Signals.”

RE100 (February, 2019). “Companies.” Available at: http://there100.org/companies

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) (February, 2019). “BRC: Business Renewables Center.” Available at: https://www.rmi.org/our-work/electricity/brc-business-renewables-center/

Spector, Julian (August, 2018). “Facebook Pledges to Buy 100% Renewable Energy by 2020.” Greentech Media. Available at: https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/facebook-pledges-to-buy-100-renewable-energy-by-2020#gs.7EwH5Ugb

Union of Concerned Scientists (December, 2017). “Benefits of Renewable Energy Use.” Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/public-benefits-of-renewable-power#.XGHplFxKhPY

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Thank Peter for the Post!

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