EPA Recommends Curbing Data-Center Energy Consumption

If left unchecked, the agency warns consumption threatens to cost the public and private sector $7.4 billion in annual electricity costs by 2011.
The Environment Protection Agency on Friday unveiled a report that makes recommendations for curbing data-center energy consumption, which if left unchecked, threatens to cost the public and private sector $7.4 billion in annual electricity costs by 2011.

The 133-page report submitted to Congress on Thursday could have a major impact on businesses, if lawmakers decided to take action on the EPA's recommendations.

Based on current growth rates, the agency estimates that by 2011 data centers nationwide would consume almost twice the amount of electricity as they did in 2006. That would amount to 12 gigawatts of electricity during peak loads in the nation's power grid. As a point of reference, data centers currently use about 7 gigawatts during peak hours, which is the equivalent output of 15 power plants.

In 2006, data centers consumed a total of 61 billion kilowatt hours, or 1.5% of the total electricity used in the United States, the EPA said. The cost of electricity used in running electronic equipment for data processing, data storage and communications networking was $4.5 billion. By 2011, that number is on tract to jump to $7.4 billion. In addition, the increased demand would require an additional 10 power plants.

"These estimates and projections illustrate the magnitude of energy use in data centers and the need for effective energy-efficiency strategies," the report said. "Energy consumption monitoring and reporting may be needed to both improve these estimates and inform future policy initiatives."

Besides the economic repercussions, increasing the production of electricity to meet the demand would have an environmental impact through a rise in emissions, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses linked to global warming.

The EPA said businesses and government could dramatically lower the projected rise in electricity consumption by adopting state-of-the-art technology available today, implementing best practices used in the most energy-efficient data centers, and making better use of existing equipment, such as through server consolidation and enabling power management on all servers. Each of the three scenarios would reduce electricity consumption ranging from 23 billion kilowatt hours to 74 billion kilowatt hours. Cost reductions for each would range from $1.6 billion to $5.1 billion, and carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 15 million metric tons to 47 million metric tons.

In more simple terms, if each of the three scenarios were implemented to their maximum efficacy, the projected rise in electricity use by 2011 could drop by 110%, which means less power would be used than in 2006. Such a scenario, however, would be difficult to achieve.

The EPA recommended a mix of programs and incentives to achieve better energy efficiency. First is the standardization of performance measurements for data centers. "The federal government and industry should work together to develop an objective, credible energy performance rating system for data centers, initially addressing the infrastructure portion but extending, when possible, to include a companion metric for the productivity and work output of IT equipment," the agency said.

Secondly, the federal government should take a leadership role by publicly reporting on the energy performance of its data centers once standardized metrics are available, conducting energy assessments of all its facilities within two or three years, and implementing all cost-effective operational improvements. The government currently accounts for 10% of all the electricity consumption and costs associated with data centers.

The EPA also recommended that the federal government issue a challenge to chief executive officers to conduct energy-efficiency assessments defined by the Department of Energy, implement improvements, and report on energy performance of their data centers.

In addition, the government should partner with industry to develop and publish information on field demonstrations and case studies of best practices. Government should also work with the private sector to develop objective, credible energy performance metrics for data center equipment, such as servers, storage, network equipment, and uninterruptible power supplies.

The EPA also recommended that the government collaborate with industry, universities, electric utilities and others to initiate a comprehensive research and development program to develop technologies and practices for energy efficiency. Finally, the government should work with the same stakeholders in formulating a common initiative, including public policies and private-sector actions.