Explosive growth in Internet data storage underscores need for energy efficiency

            The electricity use of data centers, from warehouse-size buildings full of computers that store photos, documents, emails, and other data for companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, to banks of servers that fit in a closet, is growing rapidly in the Northwest and today is equal to the electricity use of two traditional Northwest industries, lumber and wood-products manufacturing, an analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council shows. The Council’s power planning staff reported to the Council this week at a meeting in Bend, Oregon.

            “Data center electricity load is growing rapidly in the Northwest, and we are working to ensure that utilities and data center owners deal effectively with the growth, particularly through opportunities to reduce energy consumption through increased efficiency,” Council Chair Bill Bradbury said.

            The demand for data storage is growing explosively as the use of wireless devices like cell phones and tablet computers grows rapidly. It is not unusual for large data centers to store hundreds of billions of photos and add hundreds of millions daily.

            The growth of data centers and their steadily increasing electricity demand present challenges to utilities that provide the power, and also to the Council, which plans for future electricity demand and supply in the Northwest. As the Council begins working this year on its next 20-year power plan, a revision the Council undertakes every five years, the impact of present and future electricity use by data centers is an important issue.

            The world’s largest computer makers and Internet service providers have located data centers in the Northwest. But those are not the only data centers, which can be virtually any size and serve dozens to millions of users. Collectively all data centers in the Northwest consume 800 average megawatts annually, an amount roughly equal to the average annual power consumption of 370,000 Northwest homes. The largest data centers represent about 5-10 percent of annual industrial power sales in the region.

            The Northwest is an attractive place to build large data centers because of the low cost of power and land compared to other areas of the country; the reliability of the power supply and high-voltage transmission; generous tax policies; an educated workforce; good economic development incentives; and mild weather that can reduce electricity use to cool data centers, according to the Council’s report. Most of the large centers are located in small towns for similar reasons -- access to inexpensive land and power, reliable communication networks, economic development incentives, and the ability to rapidly expand electricity loads when needed.

            There are challenges, too. While large data centers tend to have relatively flat loads, from 15 to 51 average megawatts, this amount of power can be a challenge for small, rural utilities to plan and provide.

            The Council expects the electricity use of data centers to continue to grow over time. In the Sixth Northwest Power Plan (2010) the Council predicted the load of large data centers would grow to as much as 700 average megawatts by 2030. That assumes the owners of those centers would install energy efficiency improvements to slow the demand growth over time. Otherwise, the load could hit 2,500 average megawatts, equal to the power demand of the Northwest aluminum industry during its heyday in the 1990s.

            Fortunately there are many sources of inexpensive efficiency for data centers, and about 60 percent of data center managers have indicated they have analyzed efficiency measures or currently are doing so.