Data Centers: What’s Behind the LEED Certification

Last week’s announcement by General Electric (GE) of its Platinum LEED certified data center gained much appropriate attention among those who have an interest in green building design as well as among those with concern about the growing consumption of electricity by data centers. It was only in 2008 that the U.S. saw the first LEED Platinum certified data center in Iowa by ACT, using a geothermal process for cooling the banks of servers that make up a data center.

But the GE announcement is less about green design than it is about the fundamental drive of business to lower costs and increase profits.  More efficient use of energy remains a principle means to increase our energy independence and simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, and energy efficiency may be far more important in the near term for increasing U.S. energy independency and lower carbon emissions than alternative sources of energy.

The issue of energy consumption by data centers is a significant one, and the attention devoted to GE’s accomplishment emanates in part from our expectation that data centers will increasingly make heavy demands for energy.  After all, cloud computing, with its significant increase in the use of centralized, remote servers, will lead to even larger consumption of energy and additional carbon emissions than earlier estimates suggested.  A 2008 McKinsey & Company study observed that even three years ago data centers drove more carbon emissions than Argentina and the Netherlands combined.

Although GE deserves praise for its LEED Platinum certification, its own press announcement made clear that it was technological improvements to the efficiency of the cooling system and the advances in high density servers with a lower physical footprint that made possible its gains in energy efficiency.  Perhaps the more important news in August about data centers and energy use came not from GE but from an article in the academic journal, Proceedings of the IEEE by E.R. Masanet and colleagues.

Mr. E.R. Masanet and his colleagues used increased mathematical modeling sophistication to the issue of the potential for increasing efficiency in data centers.  Their work followed an earlier estimate by the EPA that there was the potential for a 70% reduction in the demand for electricity from data centers.  Mr. Masanet and his colleagues’ model raised that potential reduction to 80% with the adoption of energy efficient technologies and improved operating practices.  The paper’s purpose was twofold: (a) documenting a more precise mathematical model for estimating data center energy usage and (b) providing insight into potential, specific energy efficiency measures.

While applause for obtaining a Platinum LEED certification will be appreciated by businesses, business will behave as expected – driven by the ability to lower costs, including their costs of energy.  And the most immediate drivers of reduced consumption of energy and a reduced carbon foot print will come from the work of research engineers and scientists who introduce new designs for server banks, create innovations in processors that limit their production of heat, and develop specialized approaches to cooling servers.

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