NY Times Story About Data Center Energy Shows Why Fossil Fuels Are History

More data centers mean more energy consumptionAccording to the new Sunday New York Times article on energy waste at data centers, the sleek energy efficient image of Internet-based companies masks a primitive world of energy overconsumption and mismanagement. That could be a valid point, though not an entirely new one in terms of consumer issues. After all, for generations consumers have availed themselves of sharp-looking high performance gadgets without concerning themselves about the amount of coal, oil and natural gas needed to keep them running.

What is new is the scale of data center energy consumption, which even under improved conservation is all but certain to grow as Internet-based services proliferate. Combined with other significant new demands on the U.S. electricity supply including electric vehicles and robotic devices, it’s pretty clear that domestic energy consumption will continue to outstrip the ability of the U.S. to provide for its energy needs through domestic fossil fuels.

Data center energy and drill, baby, drill

Using more domestic oil for electricity generation is out of the question for a number of intertwined environmental, market and geological factors, especially geological. U.S. oil consumption is already out of balance with its share of global oil reserves by a wide margin, and no amount of drilling can change that.

Oil accounts for only about three percent of electricity production in the U.S., according to EPA data from 2005, so a marginal increase in domestic oil production would barely make a dent in the overall ability of the U.S. electricity grid to provide for increased demand.

The war on coal

In the case of coal, geology is on its side but the market is not. Until recently, coal accounted for fully half of U.S. electricity production but plant operators are beginning to switch to cheaper natural gas.

Renewable energy is also playing a role in pushing coal aside, though a lesser one. The availability of cost-competitive biomass is motivating some operators to switch out of coal, and there is also increasing competition from utility scale wind farms and solar installations as well as small scale distributed renewable energy.

The limits of natural gas

Both geology and the current market favor natural gas, but environmental issues are bound to limit its growth. The recent abundance of cheap natural gas is thanks to a drilling technique known as fracking, but the hidden costs of fracking are already starting to emerge and gas may not prove to be such a bargain over the long run. Among other issues, contamination is already a serious concern and that will only intensify as water scarcity issues continue to intensify.

Green data centers

The Times paints a gloomy picture, but that’s only the first article in a series and, in fact, the industry has been slowly gearing itself up to grow without necessarily using an increasing amount of fossil fuels. More companies are already transitioning to green data centers, with greater reliance on renewable energy and the adoption of new energy efficient designs and technologies.

A strong regulatory framework would certainly help to accelerate the pace of change, and consumers could end up helping to push things along, too. Though until now consumers have had little awareness about the energy that powers their gadgets, that may be changing. A recent study commissioned by the wind turbine company, Vestas, for example, found that more companies are voluntarily investing in renewable energy, and more consumers say they are willing to pay extra for products made with renewable energy.

Image: Coal power plant. Some rights reserved by eutrophication&hypoxia.

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.