Environmental Impacts of Data Centres

Solar grid

While teaching the ITGS Environment topic in Strand 2 of the ITGS triangle, I have often found Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics to be a very useful resource. The guide ranks 16 of the top IT companies for their environmental practices and provides a detailed ‘report card’ for each, covering aspects such as reduction of harmful substances, take back schemes, and energy efficiency.

Green electronics guide
Guide to Greener Electronics

However, the report is getting a bit old now (2012) and some companies have made significant progress in the intervening years. Apple, for example, ranks quite lowly on the 2012 report but its environmental policies page seems to suggest improvements have been made since then.

Luckily Greenpeace have been staying up to date with the environmental impacts of IT, albeit in a slightly different form. Their September 2014 report Green Gadgets: Designing the future provides an update of what companies have been doing to help the environment since the last report.

Data centres: the environmental impact

Another Greenpeace publication, Clicking Clean: A Guide to Building the Green Internet (published May 2015), focuses on one of the industry’s growth areas – data centres. Companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all have vast data centres with thousands of computer servers storing users’ ‘cloud’ data. According to the Greenpeace report, power demand from these data centres is set to rise 30% over the next two years, making the choice of energy source critical. The Clicking Clean guide explains the sometimes hidden cost of using fossil fuels to power these centres, and highlights how each company is doing in the quest for clean energy.

eBay data centre power sources
eBay’s data centres (Source: Greenpeace)
Apple's data centres renewable energy table
Apple seems to lead the pack on renewable energy (Source: Greenpeace)

It is positive to see many companies claiming 100% clean energy at some of their data centres. There is a large range of results though, with many of those same companies also having data centres with 0% clean energy. Only Apple claims to have 100% clean energy at 100% of its data centres, though I have read elsewhere in the media that this may be down to manipulation of figures.

ITGS Lesson Ideas

Like the problem of e-waste, the power consumption of data centres is often a hidden problem and it isn’t unusual to find ITGS students who have not considered their impact on this issue. I have found a useful activity is to have students enumerate their use of cloud systems, and then follow up by investigating the environmental policies of the companies they use (this also works well as an activity for the e-waste topic). Most students will probably use multiple cloud service providers so they can be asked to prioritise. I’ve found it useful to remind them of services they might not have considered to be cloud services – such as Facebook, eBay, and Amazon. The Greenpeace links above provide a good starting list.

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