U.S. Government Urges Data Center Efficiency Programs
Nestled in a 5,593-page federal spending bill approved last month were several provisions that could tighten energy standards for data centers.
The $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act, which included $900B in coronavirus relief measures, was signed into law on Dec. 27. As part of a section on energy policy, the sweeping bill establishes a “data center energy practitioner program,” which would certify experts in data center efficiency, among other provisions.
“Those skills exist in consultancies or large companies, but they’re not available to some of the smaller data centers out there,” said Eric Masanet, a professor at Northwestern University who studies data center energy consumption.
Masanet co-authored a seminal 2016 study conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that estimated data center energy usage dating back to 2000 and forecast its growth. But data centers have evolved since that study was conducted, and some of the provisions in the federal bill could help bring data centers more in line with industrial and commercial buildings, which have standardized energy certifications like LEED.
In addition to the certification program, the federal bill calls for new research on data center energy usage, accounting for ”the impact of the combination of cloud platforms, mobile devices, social media, and big data on data center energy usage.” It also establishes an open data initiative whereby the federal government will track and share energy use statistics on its own data centers.
That is no trivial undertaking. According to a 2019 analysis by the Government Accountability Office, the federal government maintains 12,166 data centers, many of which were deemed inefficient.
The bill also calls for the development of a comprehensive metric that measures overall data center efficiency, inclusive of both cooling systems and the equipment itself.
“These efficiency metrics are really important because they exist in other sectors,” Masanet said.
In the data center industry at large, a combination of business incentives and technological advancements have prioritized data center sustainability. So-called hyperscalers — the Facebooks, Googles and Amazons of the world — have set aggressive efficiency targets for their vast data centers, setting the bar for colocation firms. Enterprises are paying closer attention to sustainability and resource consumption as well.
“Renewables are becoming a massive topic for data centers ... especially on the private side," said Michael Wirkus of Atlas Retail Energy, which advises data centers on energy strategy. "They’re very much concerned with their client base and becoming more aware of where the energy is coming from.”
Some local governments in the U.S. have introduced energy guidelines for data centers, and “we’re starting to see the federal government catch up with that,” Wirkus said.
Overseas, the European Union is considering tighter regulations of data centers, aiming to ensure they are climate neutral by 2030. The European Commission found that data centers accounted for 2.7% of electricity demand in Europe in 2018 and will reach 3.21% by 2030 if the current pace of development continues.
In the U.S., greater transparency and standardization in data center efficiency could pave the way for more policymaking, particularly as climate issues come to the fore.
"The data center industry is in a transitional phase. ... The analyst and policy community need to get a better handle on how energy usage has changed and how it will change going forward," Masanet said.