Dark Clouds gathering

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Do you know where your email is stored and what it costs the environment to store it there?

For millions of people who use web-based email services, these are difficult questions to answer. A webmail message is one of those seemingly intangible objects stored ‘somewhere else’ on the internet. That somewhere is increasingly known as ‘The Cloud’.

The Cloud is geek shorthand for the virtual place where you search the web, watch YouTube videos, make Facebook friends or carry out internet banking. Although we access all of these virtual services via our desktops, some other computer at the other end of the internet is actually doing the heavy lifting of assembling data into cat videos or love-letters or mortgage payments.

Calling this vague collection of ‘other’ computers a ‘cloud’ evokes a vaporous world of weightless websites, but that would be misleading. In truth, The Cloud consists of dataprocessing warehouses the size of football fields, strung together by fat cables and inside which air-conditioning fans cool rows of computing servers 24 hours a day. Far from being weightless, the expanding digital cloud is really an enormous necklace of steel, silicon and concrete.

That necklace is now growing heavy. As the demand for online services skyrockets, a global building bonanza is underway. Governments from Malaysia to Iceland are touting for data centre contracts. Facebook is currently investing $200 million in data centres. Microsoft is investing $500 million per new data centre, while Google is spending $600 million on each new facility, having spent an astonishing $2.4 billion on data centres in 2007 alone. Every one of these data centres is a serious energy hog.

According to San Francisco power utility PG&E, the demand for power by data centres in its region rocketed from 70 megawatts to 500 megawatts in just a year and a half. Carrying out a single search query on Google’s servers is estimated to use as many as 11 watt-hours of energy – equivalent to lighting a compact fluorescent light bulb for one hour.

By one reckoning, each search emits just under 7g of CO2. If that’s right then the 113 billion internet searches performed last year emitted more greenhouse gases than the economy of Eritrea, even before accounting the climate cost of buying boots on eBay or watching cute kittens on YouTube. According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, data centres currently account for 0.3 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050 they are expected to outdo air travel in their contribution to climate change.

All of that also burns cash, of course, and so the scramble is on to reduce power costs. New data centres are being sited next to icy rivers or in chilly countries, in the hope of cutting down on aircon. Google is investing in solar, wind and other renewables to defray a $2 million electricity bill. It is even looking to push The Cloud out to sea: in the past few months it has emerged that Google has designs on a fleet of floating data centres that would use the cold waves to produce energy and cool the computers.

Beyond energy and carbon costs, however, The Cloud may also turn out to have a toxic lining. Managing electronic waste (e-waste) is a problem that plagues all computer-users, but is especially acute for data centres aggregating thousands of electronics in one location. Google is estimated to run about half a million data servers built in-house from the cheapest possible components. A single upgrade of this data centre hardware could liberate thousands of tonnes of e-waste, particularly in circuit boards. According to the US-based Computer TakeBack Campaign, thousands of chemicals are used in the production of electronics, including heavy metals and hazardous materials such as PVC. Their production and disposal often exposes workers in poor communities and prisons to environmental and reproductive toxins. Massive aircon systems for data centres can also employ toxic coolants. Unfortunately, as the data centre industry moves offshore (literally in Google’s case) to chillier and cheaper locations, keeping a watchful eye on The Cloud may prove ever more difficult.

Jim Thomas is a research programme manager and writer with ETC group (www.etcgroup.org)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

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