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Server farms, those warehouses full of computers that handle music streaming, web searches and other cloud services, consume a lot of energy. In fact, the carbon emissions from the fossil fuels that power data centers account for the largest part of (for example) Google’s footprint. A Google search, for instance requires .3 watt-hours of electricity. Each minute watched on YouTube generates .1 grams of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by billions of searches or minutes watched and you get the picture.
Recognizing that the growing use of cloud services will only continue to boost energy demand, Facebook and Apple (with its iTunes Music Store and new iCloud service) are taking action to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Facebook will open a data center in Lulea, Sweden to take advantage of the country’s frigid air to cool its servers. Sweden’s hydropower infrastructure will power the servers themselves. Rumors (and they’re always rumors, aren’t they?) suggest that Apple is looking to build a solar farm next door to its brand new data center in Catawba County, North Carolina.
An international treaty regulating carbon dioxide is not likely (PDF) any time soon. Without a legally-binding treaty or other meaningful domestic plan to internalize the cost of carbon into the price of fossil fuels, private companies have very little incentive to turn away from these very cheap (PDF) energy sources.
Apple’s and Facebook’s plans (along with Google’s partial reliance on wind) demonstrate the positive impact that private actors can have in a world without certain needed regulations. As cloud services become increasingly and seamlessly (Siri, for instance is cloud-based) integrated with technology, energy demands will increase. Technology companies cannot wait for the law to catch up with them. While it is true that these and similar companies contribute very little to global carbon emissions, every little bit of carbon mitigation counts.
Private investment in renewables may have to be a stopgap measure absent an optimal (PDF) international climate change agreement.
– David Rutenberg
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