Data centers demand 1% of the world’s energy. How will they be built to survive a climate-changed world — and contribute less to warming it?
Internet Outages Could Spread as Temperatures Rise. Here’s What Big Tech Is Doing
12 min read
Early in September, when temperatures spiked to 116 degrees Fahrenheit and broke a 100-year record in Sacramento, California, the government told people to stay indoors as much as possible and to stay cool. That’s when people turning to Twitter to vent their grievances, but it turns out that their social media access could have melted down along with everything else.
The extreme heat led to a shutdown of Twitter’s entire data center region, CNN reported. While users on Twitter joked that it was just a dry heat and that a forced break from the social media site would do everyone good, the event was serious. As an internal memo from the company’s vice president of engineering, Carrie Fernandez, put it, if other data centers in Atlanta or Portland went down, “we may not be able to serve traffic to all Twitter’s users.”
The company declined to discuss specifics about the meltdown, but did say in October that there had been no disruptions impacting people’s ability to access and use Twitter. “Our teams remain equipped with the tools and resources they need to ship updates and will continue working to provide a seamless Twitter experience,” a spokesperson said at the time.
While the company’s data centers in other regions stayed online and users continued to tweet as normal, the incident put into perspective how a changing climate threatens the very services we rely on to keep our businesses online and stay connected with friends and family. It wasn’t even the first heat-related data center shutdown this year, not after London’s record-breaking July heat wave knocked out facilities run by Google and Oracle. Outages could be more prevalent as climate change results in a warmer world with harsher weather.
That’s a big issue as climate change is hitting us at an ever faster pace. 2022 is expected to be the sixth-hottest year on record as average temperatures reached 1.57 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average. We’re on track to normalize that temperature gain every year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted last year, and it could get worse if nothing is done.
As our world warms up, power outages and water shortages have ravaged many parts of the planet. Data centers may be among the first to feel the resource pinch. They need lots of energy to keep their servers powered, air conditioning and often water to cool the servers, sensors to monitor equipment, fire suppression and backup systems to absorb energy hiccups or software malfunctions — complex yet resilient data ecosystems.
That takes a lot of energy, leading data centers and data transmission networks to be responsible for around 1% of energy demand worldwide, according to the latest report from the International Energy Agency. Efficiency gains have kept that number steady for the last decade, but as climate change threatens energy availability, Big Tech has engaged more sustainable strategies. These include shifting more of their energy reliance to renewables like solar and wind, buying carbon credits to offset emissions, recycling more water and tinkering with other cooling options. The tech industry has also worked with governments in Sweden and Finland to place a handful of new data centers in cooler environments, where the ambient air can help keep things manageable.
But you can’t just store every data center near the Arctic Circle, since they need to be geographically close to users and business clients to reduce the time it takes to request and receive data, known as latency. That’s why the financial sector has continued to rent data center space in Manhattan, within a stone’s throw of the New York Stock Exchange for minimal lag between trades, and why Netflix has Amazon Web Services data center instances fired up around big cities so people don’t have to wait long to queue up the next episode of Stranger Things.
We need data centers to be close to populations, but that means their climatological impact is local, too.
“If we don’t address climate change, we really will be toast,” former Google CEO and chairman Eric Schmidt told CNBC in April. He left the tech giant in 2017 to launch his own philanthropic firm to support research in future-looking fields — and found climate change harder to ignore. “We really are putting the jeopardy of our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren at risk.”
Experts say that data centers can be built to be kinder to the climate. But it’s going to be tough to pull off.
Building for change
Climate change is already factoring heavily into how tech companies work. When selecting a site for their data centers, companies like Microsoft and Amazon prioritize access to low-cost energy, which they’ve historically found in places like Silicon Valley, northern Virginia and Dallas/Fort Worth, though Atlanta and Phoenix have been growing. They also look for internet infrastructure from telecoms AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink, along with fiber providers like Charter and Comcast, to keep data flowing. They assess the risk of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, too.
Whether preparing for natural disasters or power outages, companies running services through their data centers build in redundancy at the network level.
“The way we designed and operated our data centers with availability and security in mind has really prepared us for increased risk around climate,” said Chris Wellise, Amazon Web Services’ director of worldwide sustainability and carbon.
For data centers, building redundancy in backup systems and power generators ensures that things can go wrong without the whole center shutting down. Using networks of data centers, like with AWS or Microsoft Azure, redundancy makes sure client data is synchronized so that their website or service isn’t disrupted if a data center goes down. Both Amazon and Microsoft have so-called availability zones — a system such that if one zone goes down in one area, services are supported by other connected zones, which are far enough away not to be affected by the same natural disaster.
Amazon caters its zones to local environments, Wellise explained. “What might be true in a place like the northwestern United States is not true in a place like India or Singapore. Concerns about uptime and resilience may have more to do with the supply of energy in a particular region versus flooding events that occur,” Wellise said. So far, that focus has kept servers and services online. While software issues occasionally bring down data centers, like a trio of events in December 2021, AWS hasn’t had a major weather-related outage since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“The uptime and resiliency record that we have speaks for itself,” Wellise said.
After the leaps in efficiency transitioning from small to scaled-up data centers, Big Tech is looking more abstractly at lowering its carbon footprint.
That’s led companies to consider the concept of “embodied carbon,” or the carbon released when making building materials used to construct their facilities. For instance, they’ve switched to a different kind of steel crafted using renewable energy and concrete that emits less carbon when it’s created.
But examining the impact of data centers reveals the holistic system that keeps our data flowing. Zoom out from the building and it becomes clear how data center dependencies on water and energy impact their readiness for a climate-changed world.
Water isn’t just for agriculture
One of the most dramatic ways climate change will rear its ugly head is through water, which isn’t just a critical component of life on Earth, but also an important asset for our data.
While data centers might look like any other industrial building, they suck up more water for cooling than your average office. Not a lot, especially since efficiency gains mean data centers recycle much of the water they use, but it’s still a resource that’ll only get more precious over time. Local needs raise concerns, as one-fifth of the data centers in the country get their water from moderately to highly stressed regions supplying water in the dry western US, per an April report from Virginia Tech. US cities are already getting nervous.
It’s helpful to look at water usage relevant to the surrounding area, says Aaron Wemhoff, associate professor and director at Villanova University’s Center for Energy-Smart Electronic Systems. Examining what he terms the water scarcity footprint would weigh not only how much water data centers use, but also — in the case of when data centers are built with air conditioning, thus needing more energy — the amount of water consumed by the nearby power plant keeping the data center’s lights on.
The tricky balance of that tradeoff has led to some surprising conclusions. Wemhoff’s research found that data centers in some locations are better off being water-cooled rather than air-cooled. “You’re using more water on site, but in the end … it’s actually better. You have a reduced scarcity footprint,” Wemhoff said.
As water is projected to get scarcer over time, that could change. Data centers can prepare for floods or hurricanes, but droughts are hard to evade when you also need to be as close as possible to customers you’re serving. “It’s a real challenge for an existing data center to address the issue of water shortages. If your data center needs that water to keep it cool, then it really poses a problem,” Wemhoff said.
Companies are working to mitigate the impact of their water use, with Facebook parent Meta and software giant Microsoft saying they plan to replenish more local water than they use (what they call being “water positive”) by 2030. By Meta’s count, the company has moved from replenishing a fraction of the over 1 million cubic meters of water it used in 2018 to replenishing 2.3 of the 2.6 million cubic meters of water used in 2021, according to the company’s annual sustainability report for last year.
Big tech has tried out some alternatives to air conditioning that don’t rely on water. Microsoft is experimenting with using a different liquid entirely, but it’s an even more advanced process than using water flowing through pipes to transit heat. Microsoft’s method submerges servers completely in the proprietary liquid, and the liquid is cycled out to siphon off the heat. This allows the servers to run at faster processing speeds (called overclocking) without risk of overheating. Microsoft is also trying out storing servers in underwater data centers, which are vacuum-sealed to keep a consistent internal temperature.
The heat servers emit can be repurposed, too. Facebook has experimented with cycling out heat from its Denmark data center to warm up thousands of nearby homes, CNET sister publication ZDNet reported. Companies have found uses for water after cooling their systems/computers/data centers as well. For instance, Amazon diverts water out of its data centers around Umatilla, Oregon, into a canal that local communities can use to irrigate agriculture, as described in last year’s sustainability report. The water isn’t safe to drink, though.
The recent UN climate summit COP27 revealed a growing discontent as countries expecting to bear the brunt of climate change demanded that those responsible — mainly in the West — start paying compensation. That skepticism has been felt in the tech industry too. As experts take closer looks at Big Tech’s sustainability promises, they’re finding companies aren’t entirely living up to their lofty press releases.
Nonprofits want to keep Big Tech honest, providing pressure even to the companies making boastful claims of “carbon neutral” and “zero emission” without explaining what those mean. There’s a shortage of transparency.
“We as a society ought to have transparency not just on the environmental impact of data centers and tech, but also on the social impact and economic impact,” said Max Schulze, co-founder of the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, an industry group with a road map for data center sustainability. He compared YouTube, which doesn’t share total minutes of video or streams per month or other business performance metrics, with the steel industry, which is mandated by law to explain how many tons of steel are made and how much pollution and carbon it took to produce.
It doesn’t help that some companies have trumpeted their own climate change-fighting measures that support renewable energy rather than seeking to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Google has heavily promoted its use of carbon offsets to be “100% carbon neutral” since 2007, buying enough credits to “compensate for all our GHG,” as its 2022 sustainability report puts it. Since 2017, the company has also bought an amount of green energy equal to how much its global operations consume. Effectively, it’s trying to cancel out emissions by purchasing credits and clean energy.
Some companies have token solar cells or wind turbines to farm green energy on site, which is promising, but so far they’ve only been able to produce a fraction of what they need, Wemhoff said. You’d have to build an entire solar or wind farm next to your data center, like Google plans to do with its upcoming solar facility in Nevada, a feat that can only be done in remote areas and at great expense.
Many tech companies prefer to simply buy some of their energy from greener sources when it’s available, but generating or buying energy from green sources doesn’t eliminate emissions in the first place. To prevent some of the more extreme consequences of global warming, there needs to be less carbon released, full stop, making “offsets” a distraction rather than a solution. “If the idea that you can simply invest a little money and make your carbon footprint disappear sounds too good to be true, that’s because it absolutely is,” John Oliver said in a recent segment of Last Week Tonight covering carbon offsets.
Some companies have taken other steps for a more sustainable future. Samsung and Apple battle for smartphone supremacy every year, yet both started new initiatives in 2022 to plant and protect fields of mangrove trees, which are among the most efficient at capturing carbon and converting carbon dioxide back to oxygen. Samsung plans to plant 2 million trees in Madagascar, while Apple will supply communities in India with bio-stoves to prevent them chopping down mangrove forests for fuel.
But Big Tech should stop caring about offsetting emissions and focus on preventing or removing them, experts say.
“In my mind, the only viable option is removals, investing in carbon being removed from the air,” said Philipp Von Bieberstein, co-founder and chief revenue officer of Climatiq, which advises tech companies on sustainability and calculates their carbon emissions. He pointed to two viable solutions: direct air capture, which is literally sucking the carbon out of the air, or using filters to strain the carbon out of emission vectors.
Whether Big Tech takes such direct action against the carbon it’s emitting doesn’t change that it’s contributing to a warmer world. It’s clear from sustainability reports that companies know their physical installations have an impact on the climate, and caring about the carbon created when making steel and concrete for data centers is only part of the picture. There’s also the massive amount of e-waste coming from all the servers and computers that handle the data itself.
Companies providing cloud computing and other data services need the best equipment, which leads them to cycle out servers every three years or so — and given the sheer scale of data centers worldwide, that’s a staggering volume of servers built, shipped, installed and swapped out in less time than the interval between FIFA World Cups.
Worse, these servers are typically stripped for scrap rather than repurposed. Due to privacy and security concerns over the data stored on them, server hard drives are sometimes shredded.
Big Tech hasn’t broadly addressed its role in generating server waste, though some of the bigger companies have included it in their sustainability goals. Just over a quarter of Google’s server upgrades were from refurbished inventory and the company resold 4.9 million components for use by other companies. Microsoft launched the first of six planned Circular Centers a year ago, which reuse a host of materials and electronics from data centers with the goal of getting 90% of its servers and components to be reused by 2025, and will start using its servers for six years before replacing them instead of four.
While Amazon, Microsoft and Google account for half of the biggest “hyperscale” data centers in the world, their sustainability priorities are still critical for the other half as they set the example. “People follow what they do, and they have a big impact on policy and other industry players,” von Bieberstein said.
That might not be the case for all of Big Tech.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on with Twitter these days as new CEO Elon Musk conducts cost-saving measures that cut staff and projects. His entertaining-as-a-car-crash arbitrary rulings yanks the social media company’s policies this way and that, most recently cutting microservices Musk deemed “bloatware” that supposedly led to disabling two-factor authentication and keeping subscribers locked out of their accounts.
It’s unclear just yet if the staff cuts and shifting focus at Twitter will lead to malfunctions at data centers. At a time when other tech companies are paying more attention to how their data infrastructure operates within and contributes to a warmer world, saving on costs could lead to even more disastrous data center outcomes — now or in a climate-changed future.