While these firms are incredibly sophisticated about data in their core businesses,
ironically they use crude and outdated sources to gauge the carbon footprint of their data centers, finds Lux Research
BOSTON, MA – February 4, 2016 – Each year, the data centers that power social media, streaming video, cloud computing, and connected devices use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity – enough to power New York City twice over – and their consumption is still growing rapidly. The companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple that run them have the most advanced data analytics tools at their disposal, as well as high-minded public commitments to sustainability.
However, they are reliant on obsolete data tools for calculating emissions due to the electricity they purchase from the power grid. A new analytical tool from Lux Research finds that data centers frequently use far more coal, and thus have much greater emissions, than previously thought.
Today, operators rely on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID) to estimate their emissions. However, eGRID divides the U.S. electricity grid into just 24 broad regions, and is updated only infrequently – the most recent information available is from 2012.
“Our team of data scientists analyzed the North American electric grid, improving the accuracy of carbon reporting by a factor of 80. The results show that many sites are far more reliant on coal than reported – notably, they include many large data centers,” said Ory Zik, Lux Research Vice President of Analytics and the team leader of Lux’s energy benchmarking.
“For example, we found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven data centers, in particular at its Berkeley County, S.C. location,” he added.
The new Lux Grid Network Analysis (GNA) divides the grid into 134 regions, instead of just 24, providing more granular insight, and makes use of U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data that is updated monthly, as opposed to three-year-old annual data. Applying the Lux GNA to U.S.-based data centers shows where operators are coming up short in their sustainability reporting:
- Google misses the mark in four out of its seven data centers. Google uses eGRID to estimate its electricity emissions, but four of Google's seven major U.S. data centers rely more on coal than the data reported by eGRID implies. As a result, Google's emissions are likely larger than they estimated by 42,000 MT CO2e per year – the equivalent of 8,500 additional SUVs on the road.
- Amazon estimates are off in over 20 centers. Amazon is less transparent about how it calculates its emissions, but its 23 Virginia-based cloud services data centers use about 43% electricity from coal – not 35% as inferred using eGRID. This difference amounts to 85,000 MT CO2e per year more – some 5,000 households' worth of emissions.
- The changing grid drives the need for better tools. Investments in renewable energy are growing exponentially, while natural gas is displacing coal, changing the composition of grid generation. The right prioritization of what to do and where, begins with better analytics. With the tools now available, it's time for data center owners to bring to their energy decisions the same data-driven rigor they use in the rest of their businesses.
Lux’s energy benchmarking further defines the analysis of data center coal usage and is part of the Lux Research Analytics service.
Resource Information for System Knowledge (RISK)
Resource scarcity, price volatility, and increased social and environmental pressures all threaten supply disruption and unplanned price spikes – but for most companies, the impact of resource dependence remains increasingly hard to evaluate. Lux Research's Resource Information for System Knowledge (RISK) platform guides companies through this treacherous landscape.
RISK provides the necessary support to help companies benchmark their global operations from the perspectives of profitability, resilience, and sustainability. Companies using the platform can determine where substitution strategies can be deployed, and foresee where breakthrough innovation can have the most impact.
RISK AND DATA CENTERS
Organizations make decisions that involve complex value chains (in the case of data centers, largely the electricity grid) and complex resource interactions (for data centers, the interaction of distributed generation and the grid). Companies need to think about resources outside the four walls of their facilities to mitigate resource cost, risk, and environmental impact. For data centers, only about 12% of their carbon emission is within the four walls of their facility; the rest of the losses (and emissions) come from resources procured from elsewhere. Download the complimentary White Paper “Coal Computing: How Companies Misunderstand Their Dirty Data Centers."