The carbon footprint of data centers is the highest it has ever been. As more and more operations are managed in the ‘cloud,’ the energy required to process and perform those operations is generated mostly by fossil fuels.
Studies show that over 2700 colocation centers across the U.S. consume vasts amounts of electricity and water, but provide very few human jobs required for operation. And, many of which are located in areas that are susceptible to drought.
Anywhere from 3 million, to five million gallons of water a day is required. (Enough for 30,000-50,000 people)
Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA)8 shows that centers use 200TWh of electricity and generate 3.5% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the majority of which is utilized within the Information and Communication Technology (ITC) sector.
As massive structures filled with computer hardware, this article explores of the carbon footprint of data centers and recommends strategies that can help data centers and users reduce their environmental impact by seeking out and using green technology and earth-friendly web usage carbon offsets.
Data Centers Carbon Footprint: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Data Centers?
Data centers need electricity to run the servers.
In the United States, the location of the data center or colocation structure impacts how much emissions are generated by electricity use.
For example, data centers located in areas that obtain their electricity using a green power company (rare) will have a much lower carbon footprint than locations that are powered by gas or coal burning electricity generators. The same is true for centers that utilize hydropower generated electricity.
This is also true for many other countries, where coal is the primary source of electricity.
Data centers need water to cool the servers and also can create large water run off.
In fact, recent studies have shows that data centers use up to 5 million gallons of water a day.
With dwindling ground water supplies and changeable weather, many communities are fighting against the development of more data centers.
The Lifetime of the Equipment
The lifespan of the equipment determines the frequency of replacements.
Every hardware replacement in the colocation center generates a carbon footprint for its sourcing, production, and transportation.
Each of these factors has unique features that must be considered when calculating the carbon footprint of data centers.
Where Are the World’s Data Centers Located?
A recent survey outlined a number of facts about the world’s data centers.27
The following countries host colocation centers:
|Country||Number of Data Centers|
Data Storage Carbon Footprint: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Data Storage?
Not only is cloud storage convenient, but it also provides the peace of mind of a secure backup. However, cloud storage can harm the environment by contributing to CO2 emissions.
You can find out exactly how much your carbon emissions are by using a footprint calculator that measures internet and web usage.
How Much Energy Do Data Centers Consume?
Data centers are power guzzlers. In the U.S., data centers consume 200 TWh (Terawatt Hours) annually and dump 0.3% of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
That is more energy consumption and CO2 emission than some nation-states.
The electricity used by data centers is high because the energy requirements of critical pieces of IT are vast. These include:
- Storage Drives
Each of these variables needs electricity and can sometimes increase overall CO2 emissions.
Carbon Footprint of Data Centers: Data Center Energy Consumption Forecast
The energy consumption of data centers is rising exponentially. By 2026, the energy consumption of data centers is expected to rise to 1,000TWh.
Even worse, by 2030, the energy consumption of data centers is expected to rise to 2,500TWh.
If data centers continue to use non-renewable electricity as an energy source, energy consumption is expected to quadruple by mid-century.
Data center emissions are also expected to rise and surpass those of the airline industry, which currently accounts for 2% of global GHG emissions.
United States Data Center Energy Usage Report
The report shows that data center electricity use increased by around 4% from 2010 to 2014, and energy use is expected to increase, albeit at a glacial pace. Estimates further show that U.S. data centers are expected to use 73 billion kWh in the 2020s.
IEA Data Center Energy Consumption
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centers accounted for 300 metric tons of CO2e in 2020, equivalent to 0.6% of overall GHG emissions or 0.9% of energy-related GHG emissions.
Data Center GHG Emissions: Data Centre Carbon Footprint
GHG emissions from data centers are grouped into three categories:
- Scope 1: Refrigerants (for cooling systems), diesel (for backup electricity), and natural gas (for heating and fueling cells).
- Scope 2: Electricity consumption or purchase.
- Scope 3: Indirect GHG emissions, such as emissions from the computing equipment.
Data centers account for 2.5% to 3.7% of global GHG emissions.
Data center emissions exceed GHG emissions from the aviation industry (2.4%) and other activities that fuel the global economy.
Environmental Impact of Data Storage
Data storage impacts the environment in various ways, including:
Data storage is responsible for 0.3% of overall CO2 emissions.
These emissions come from energy use and operations.
Data storage produces significant amounts of E-waste (electronic waste).
Electronic waste is toxic. Not only is it non-biodegradable, but it also accumulates in the environment, affecting the soil and air quality of an area.
Data centers use batteries as a backup when power outages occur.
Impact of Data Centers: Impact of DataCenters on the Environment
The impact of data centers goes beyond GHG emissions. Here is how:
Data centers located in areas that do not allow free cooling or indirect evaporative coolers14 require coolant for computer room air conditioning (CRAC). Coolant can be used for liquid cooling; however, it requires chemicals.
Coolants are often chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halocarbons, or Freon. These chemicals are mild to highly toxic, and their continuous use can cause ozone depletion.15 They also have a global warming potential since they trap heat within the atmosphere.3
For a data center to operate efficiently, it needs to be dust and dirt free. Dust and dirt are enemies of computing equipment, and the best way to eliminate them is by using specialized cleaning solutions.
Most specialized cleaning solutions are toxic as they contain chlorine, ammonia, and bleach. These chemical elements can harm wild, aquatic, and human life.
In the atmosphere, they are associated with ozone depletion, which increases the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the surface of the earth.
Computing equipment has a short life cycle. In IT, the rule of thumb is that servers must be replaced after every three to five years.
Beyond replacements, there are cracked monitors, loose bearings and motors, and broken hard drives.
Computing equipment contains substances that can harm the environment if carelessly dumped in landfills. Computing equipment contains toxic heavy metals16 that contaminate groundwater and pollute the soil 1.
Even worse, run-off from landfills can contaminate drinking water and water used for cleaning and bathing, exposing individuals to dangerous chemicals.6
Data Centers Environmental Impact: What Can Be Done To Minimize the Effect of Data Centers on the Environment?
Minimizing the effects of data centers on the environment can be achieved by implementing the following tactics:
Invest in New Equipment
The older the computing equipment, the more energy it requires to operate. Investing in new equipment means more energy-efficient and better-functioning equipment, which, in turn, results in reduced energy consumption and reduced CO2 emissions.
Invest in Renewable Energy
Instead of installing wind turbines and solar panels in new locations, data centers can set up these devices in unused roof spaces.
Wind turbines and solar panels are low-maintenance and beneficial in helping reduce electricity costs and CO2 emissions. But, an effective energy source is also nuclear.
Invest in Cooling Techniques
This is more energy efficient than using artificial techniques such as air conditioning.
Leave Fewer Servers Inactive (Turn Them Off)
Another effective way of minimizing the effects of data centers on the environment is by turning servers off during off-peak hours when traffic has slowed down.
Carbon Footprint of Data Centers: Are Data Centers Dangerous?
Data centers can be dangerous. The most common dangers found in data centers include the following:
Substandard Electrical Grounding Techniques
However, many data centers do not adhere to the recommended limit.
Maintaining the recommended grounding resistance can prevent transient voltage surges. In turn, this prevents potential damage to circuit boards, electrical devices, and electrical appliances.
Lousy Cable Management
Some data centers deploy new cables without removing pre-existing ones. If these bundles run beneath raised floors, they can accumulate and interfere with the efficiency of cooling systems.
Other common problems related to cabling include unlabeled cables, bent cables, and freestanding cables.
Plenums beneath subfloors need regular cleaning; otherwise, galvanic corrosion may contaminate the data center.
If the corroded materials get sucked into the air circulatory system, they may cause short circuits.4
Poor Data Center Management
Design aside, uptime is ultimately determined by the individuals working in a data center.
Most data center failures are caused by human error, including poor training or improper implementation of operating protocols.
Data Center Health and Safety: Data Center PPE Requirements
All employees working within the facility must use the proper PPE gear, including face shields, shoe covers, goggles, glasses, gloves, masks, and bump caps. They must also use insulated tools and meters.
Failure to provide PPE to employees or require subcontractors to wear PPE increases a company’s liability should an accident occur. Moreover, OSHA21 actively inspects companies and levies heavy fines for non-compliance.
Data Center Safety Checklist
A data center safety checklist can help you physically protect your data center. It contains important considerations, including:
- If you are building a data center from scratch, choose a location that does not experience natural disasters or heavy traffic.
- If you are physically building a data center, choose materials with protection and safety in mind (i.e., a limited number of windows and thick concrete walls).
- Install surveillance cameras to monitor who enters the facility and at what time. A CCTV camera will help you do this as it is paired with an access control system.
- Ensure that the data center has round-the-clock access to water and electricity in case of a fire or power outage.
- Ensure that the data center has redundant cooling, fire suppression, and power services to maintain the environment in case a single component fails.
- Implement multiple layers of security and ensure that everyone entering the data center is authenticated multiple times.
- Ensure that entrance doors are equipped with electronic locks that require a pin or card swipe that audits access.
Carbon Neutral Data Centers
A carbon-neutral data center is a data center that uses energy-efficient technologies.7 Carbon-neutral data centers are an integral part of IT’s sustainability drive because:
They Consume Less Energy
They Reduce Data Expenditure
Carbon-neutral data centers consume less energy due to advanced data management services and continual monitoring. Additionally, carbon-neutral data centers can recycle and reuse electricity when necessary.
Carbon-neutral data centers, in many ways, use energy efficiently, lowering capital costs.
They Reduce the Environmental Impact of Data Centers
As stated above, carbon-neutral data centers consume less energy. As such, they have a lower carbon footprint and a lower environmental impact than traditional data centers.
Carbon Neutral Data Center Market Forecast: Carbon Footprint of Data Centers
In 2021, the value of the global carbon-neutral data center market was $5.02 billion (in revenue) and was projected to rise to $16.53 billion by 2027.
The growth of the carbon-neutral data center market is projected to be influenced by factors such as:
- Rising energy tariffs globally
- Sustainable development efforts
- Growing emphasis on renewable energy
- Government regulations on CO2 emissions
- Corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities
- Rising energy-saving alternatives for data center cooling
How To Calculate Carbon Footprint of a Building
The formula for calculating the carbon footprint of a building is as follows:
C = Cb + Cu + Cd – Ct
C: The amount of CO2 emissions over the life cycle of the building
Cb: The amount of CO2 emissions during the construction stage
Cu: The amount of CO2 emissions during the operational stage
Cd: the amount of CO2 emissions during the demolition stage
Ct: The amount of CO2 emissions during transportation
You can also calculate the carbon footprint of a building using a business carbon footprint calculator.
How To Calculate Carbon Footprint of a House
To calculate the carbon footprint of a house, you must work out your personal share of waste disposal, water use, and energy use.
Calculations as follows:
Waste: Use (Kg/week) x 52 x (kg of CO2e/kg) Emissions Factor = Emissions (kg CO2e/year)
Water: Usage (liters/day) x 365 x (kg of CO2e/kWh) Emissions Factor = Emissions (kg CO2e/year)
Electricity: Usage (kWh/year) x (kg of CO2e/kWh) Emissions Factor = Emissions (kg CO2e/year)
Alternatively, you can use a household carbon calculator to figure out your household’s carbon footprint.
How To Calculate Carbon Footprint of a Project
The formula for calculating the carbon footprint of a construction is as follows:
- Yearly CO2 emissions ÷ Yearly production volume (store the result as production carbon emission)
- Raw material embodied carbon per unit and transportation carbon emitted + production carbon emission
- The total = carbon footprint of the construction project
You can also use a greenhouse gas calculator to review the environmental impact of a project.
Data Center Carbon Footprint Calculator: Estimating a Data Center Electrical Carbon Footprint
You can estimate the electrical carbon footprint of a data center by following these steps:
- Calculate the total energy used by the data center
- Subtract the RECs (renewable energy certificates)
- Subtract the total of (1) from the result of (2)
- Subtract carbon offsets
- Divide the result by the activity metric of the data center to get the electrical carbon footprint of the data center.
Data Center Size Calculator: What To Consider When Right-Sizing Data Center
To calculate the required power of a data center, use the following formula:
Watts = Volts x Amps x Power Factor
When right-sizing a data center, it is important to consider factors such as power budget, hardware age, size of available facilities, IT assets that are supported, and applications required to operate the data center.
This way, you can get the data you need to build and sustain a data center.
Data Center Power Consumption Calculator: Carbon Footprint of Data Centers
You can use this formula to calculate the power consumption of a data center:
Power (Watts) = Current (Amperes) x Voltage (Volts)
For example, computing equipment that is rated to use 4.5A and runs from U.S. house current (130V) uses 4.5 x 130 = 585W
Data Center Power and Cooling Requirements Calculator: XLS
Power and cooling are the main expenses of operating a data center.
Use this Excel-based tool to determine the power and cooling requirements for supporting current and future data center needs.
Sustainability Calculator: Microsoft
The Microsoft sustainability calculator helps businesses analyze the CO2 emissions of their IT infrastructures. It estimates emissions savings for performing tasks on Azure for data center infrastructure, IT equipment, and IT operational efficiency.
It also lets businesses know how much emissions they will save when they use Microsoft’s renewable energy.
Microsoft has pledged to become water positive by 2030 for its colocation centers.
Carbon Footprint Calculator: Excel
All you need to do is enter data in the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, and the system will calculate and sum up the emissions on the summary sheet.
AWS Carbon Footprint Calculator: Data Carbon Footprint
An AWS carbon footprint calculator is a tool that lets you measure the CO2 emissions from using AWS services.
It is available to all AWS customers at no cost — and it uses easy-to-understand visualizations to notify customers about their emissions from their AWS use.
To access the AWS carbon footprint calculator, open the AWS Billing Console and select Cost & Usage Reports.
Reducing the carbon footprint of data centers will help tackle the climate crisis; however, businesses cannot rely on lip service as a solution. Increased public pressure from environmentalists, industry-wide commitments to carbon-neutral IT, and government regulations are needed for a long-term, significant change.
Even though some companies are inching towards carbon-neutral IT, the pace is painstakingly slow, and it is evident that there is still a lot of progress to be made before significantly reducing the carbon footprint of data centers.
Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Data Centers
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Data Centers?
Data centers are responsible for 5% of U.S. GHG emissions or 2% of global GHG emissions.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Data Storage?
Data storage accounts for 0.2 tons of CO2 emissions.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Big Data?
Big data contributes around 2% of total human CO2 output.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of the Cloud?
The cloud is responsible for 3.7% of global GHG emissions, exceeding emissions from aviation (2.5%) and other existential activities that keep the economy running.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of 1GB Data?
1GB of data (downloaded or transferred) produces 3 kgs of CO2.
What Is Google Drive Carbon Footprint?
Since 2007, Google has been carbon neutral. Google purchased the same amount of carbon offsets and renewable energy, making its net operational carbon emissions zero.
What Is the Digital Carbon Footprint of Digital Technologies?
Digital technologies account for 4% of GHG emissions, and their energy consumption is going up by 9% yearly.
What Is the Percentage of Data Center Energy Consumption?
In the U.S., the data center industry consumes about 400 TWh, or 2% of global annual data energy consumption.
What Is the Percentage of Google Data Center Power Consumption?
Google data centers in the U.S. account for 0.38% of power consumption.
What Is the Percentage of Data Center Power Consumption Worldwide?
The data center industry is responsible for 4% of global electricity consumption.
What Is the Average Data Center Energy Use Per Square Foot?
The average data center energy use is 300 TWh per square foot. This figure can go up to 400TWh per square foot for high-traffic providers.
What Is the Impact of Data Centers Climate Change?
Data centers contribute 2% of global GHG emissions. They also produce electronic waste, which accounts for 70% of toxic waste and 2% of solid waste.
Is Living Near a Data Center Safe?
Living near a data center is dangerous. This is because data centers contain environmental hazards such as noise, cold, and heat and malfunctioning electrical and suppression systems.
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