Data center power demand is on target in Northwest; Council expects demand to increase steadily

The growth in electricity demand from the big computer data centers that store your Facebook posts and help you search the Internet with Google or utilize Apple’s "cloud" storage is growing as anticipated in the Northwest, according to an analysis by the Council.

The amount of data these centers handle is growing at an explosive rate, making it imperative that data centers continue to improve their energy efficiency to keep power demand from exploding, as well. If planned energy efficiencies aren’t achieved, by 2030 the demand from data centers could reach about two-thirds of the power consumption of the Northwest aluminum industry during its heyday in the 1980s.

"Our region has several advantages for data centers: low-cost power and a mild climate, which are important for powering and cooling computer equipment, and state tax incentives to locate here," Council Chair Joan Dukes said. "Data centers potentially could use as much power as aluminum smelters, and as the region’s electricity planning agency we are watching the growth of this industry carefully."

Custom data centers house digital electronic equipment for Internet site hosting, electronic storage and transfer, credit card and financial transaction processing, telecommunications, and other activities that support the growing electronic information-based economy. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are among the companies that have built data centers in the Northwest.

The Council’s 2010 revision of its Northwest Power Plan estimated the custom data center demand in the Northwest at about 355 average megawatts during 2012, or enough power for about 239,000 Northwest homes. About half of the load was from large data centers like those operated by Facebook and Google. The plan predicted power demand could increase by about 7 percent per year over the 20-year horizon of the plan. However, improved energy efficiency could cut demand growth to about 3 percent per year, reaching about 1,400 average megawatts in 2029.

This week the Council completed a review of those assumptions and also anticipated new demand from data centers and technological advances in the industry. The result is that the range of demand forecasts in the plan through 2030 are still valid, but if projected efficiency improvements in data center operations are not realized, or if data centers expand in the region beyond current known plans, their power demand could increase significantly – to nearly 2,500 average megawatts by 2030, according to the Council’s Power Plan. That would rival the electricity consumption of the region’s aluminum industry at its peak in the 1980s. To better understand trends and potential demand in the region, the Council’s staff is working with the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee to encourage the region’s utilities to track demand from data centers in their service territories.

Factors contributing to the growing electricity demand of data centers include the increasing use of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablet computers, increasing consumer demand for photos and video, increasing use of remote ("cloud") data storage, and legal requirements for long-term storage of financial information including electronic records such as email. Opportunities for improved energy efficiency include improved energy management, such as shifting workloads among data centers around the world throughout the day (called "following the moon" in the industry), optimizing power delivery, and reducing power-intensive air conditioning in favor of cooling the computers with outside air or evaporative coolers.

Data center computing is growing at an incredible pace. Facebook estimates that in 2012 some 526 million people log in daily through a desktop computer or a mobile device -- a 41-percent increase over 2011 usage – and its users also upload more than 300 million photos per day.