Internet Pollution – The Dirty Secret of the Information Age

The New York Times hired the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company to conduct an extensive year-longdata center energy audit to document power consumption and usage patterns amongst data centers in the United States.


With tens of thousands of data centers, and no regulations in place to curb energy consumption, the information age is at odds with the established image of efficiency and environmental friendly that seems to be associated with it. On average, most data centers use approximately 6-12% of electricity to power their servers to perform routine computations. The rest of the power is spent to keep servers idling and at the ready in case of a power surge or brown-out that could slow or crash the servers.

"Worldwide, the digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of 30 nuclear power plants. A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town."

data center spending

Most data centers run theirs servers 24/7 at maximum capacity, regardless of demand and as a result end up wasting approximately 90% of the electricity that is pulled right of the electrical grid. To make matters worse, most rely upon banks of generators that emit copious amounts of diesel fumes.

The pollution emitted from data centers, are being cited by authorities as violating several clean air regulations. Many of the data centers in Silicon Valley, CA appear on the government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory roster.

The inefficiency stems from the symbiotic relationship between users and the servers. Users want instantaneous access to all data, and the companies that are at risk if they fail to meet the demand.

"It’s staggering for most people, even people in the industry, to understand the numbers, the sheer size of these systems," said Peter Gross, who helped design hundreds of data centers. "A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town."

Many companies such as Google and Facebook are looking for ways to reduce power consumptions and are looking at things like reengineered software and more efficient cooling systems in an effort to decrease wasted power.

"This is an industry dirty secret, and no one wants to be the first to say mea culpa," said a senior industry executive who asked not to be identified to protect his company’s reputation. "If we were a manufacturing industry, we’d be out of business straightaway."

US Data Center Energy Usage

Google’s data centers currently consume approximately 300 million watts and Facebook’s, about 60 million watts. Many solutions are available to help combat this out-of-control power consumption, but in an industry that cannot afford any downtime, many companies are hesitant to implement any large scale changes.

The problem is two-fold. As users, we need to be less dependent on the data we expect to have at our finger tips at every second of every day and data centers and the computer manufacturing industry need stricter regulations and must be made to adhere to more stringent environmental standards.

Computers servers must be made more energy efficient and adhere to compulsory power consumption standards. As we see many businesses and industry moving to greener technologies, one has to speculate why the IT industry has not followed suit?

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