The Power of Efficiency to Cut Data Center Energy Waste

A new report highlights the significant opportunities to cut energy waste and reduce climate-changing pollution from the data centers powering our digital lives, which also are a growing source of electricity consumption and key driver in the building of new power plants in some regions.

The report released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a good news story: it shows the power of energy efficiency to reduce data center energy use as we transition ever more into a digital world of conducting business on the Internet and posting, streaming, and tweeting. Berkeley Lab researchers found that efficiency improvements have played a key role in slowing down the growth in electricity use by data centers after a period of large increases.


They also project that best practices in energy efficient operations and a continued shift from local data centers to more efficient cloud computing centers could cut data center energy use by an additional --and whopping-- 45 percent by 2020! The report details the opportunities to further reduce energy use from the nation’s nearly 3 million data centers, which range from the massive server farms run by companies like Amazon and Google to the small, mid-sized, corporate and multi-tenant data centers.


Berkeley Lab researchers reported, as NRDC found in earlier studies, that the larger data centers have made “significant advances’’ in operating more efficiently while smaller data centers--projected to account for more than 40 percent of all data center energy use in 2020--are still often inefficient.  

Even though the report’s authors projected only a 4 percent increase in data center electricity consumption between 2014 and 2020, data centers still represent a very large energy use – an estimated 70 billion kilowatt hours in 2014, equivalent to the electricity needed to power all the households in the states or Virginia and Washington combined, or about 1.8 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. This is lower than previous industry analysts’ estimates, which NRDC’s 2014 report used as the best available information at the time, but is still a huge number, as Forbes pointed out in a recent article. The magazine calculated the cost to generate all the electricity needed by data centers at $7 billion a year. 

Another significant cost: 50 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, roughly a month’s worth of emissions by the United Kingdom, the 5th largest economy in the world.


The digital transition is continuing, causing massive growth in online content and traffic. Without a strong, ongoing focus on efficiency, we risk seeing the growth in data center energy use accelerate again and threaten our efforts to clean the air and reduce the climate danger. As such, reducing energy use from data servers should remain a top priority as we work to combat climate change, an urgent threat to our health, environment, and economy. 


Cutting data center energy waste

NRDC has found that as much as 30 percent of a typical small office-based organization’s electricity bill may be due to powering and cooling servers running around-the-clock even when performing little or no work.

The technology exists to reduce data center power use substantially. Like NRDC, LBNL identified energy efficiency practices that could cut data center energy waste by up to 45 percent by 2020. This would save more than $3 billion annually and avoid enough electricity to power all of the homes in the State of Washington for a year.

One of the largest remaining opportunities to save energy in data centers is to reduce electricity use when servers are unused, idle, or lightly used. Decommissioning “zombie” (unused) servers, putting idle servers to a lower-power sleep mode, and consolidating lightly used servers through “virtualization,” could dramatically increase the efficiency of the nation’s data processing facilities.

Improvements in cooling also have reduced energy use. Some data centers are no long blasting air conditioning indiscriminately to keep equipment from overheating, instead finding other, more efficient ways to cool servers.

As the Berkeley Lab report pointed out, “data center electricity use would be significantly higher without these energy efficiency improvements.’’

While the large computing operations like those operated by Google and Facebook have drawn the most attention, they are a rapidly growing, but still a relatively small fraction of data center energy use. The vast majority is still consumed in small, medium, and large corporate data centers as well as in the multi-tenant data centers to which a growing number of companies outsource their data center needs. These smaller operations are the ones that lag far behind in efficiency.

As NRDC found in a 2012 report, smaller server rooms and closets are responsible for nearly half of U.S. server electricity consumption, with much of that wasted due to lack of awareness and inducements for efficiency. There is a critical need for action, including developing utility incentive programs to reduce waste in the massive amounts of electricity used by data centers of all sizes.

So, while the Berkeley Lab projected a slowing in the growth of data center energy use, we must remain vigilant if we are to meet our goals to minimize the impacts of climate change and pollution from power plants.

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