The Makings of a Good Host

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine May-Jun 2009

This column has looked at the misunderstandings and misinformation surrounding the consumption of energy in the hosting (data) centres that power the internet. It has also investigated a much repeated factoid concerning to energy cost of making a sheet of paper. Coincidentally Google, which needs to run an army of data centres, was in the news again recently with a plan to build a $200m data centre in Hamina, Finland in the premises of a former paper mill. The news articles didn’t say how big it would be, but $200m buys a lot of data centre. The paper mill had consumed a great deal of energy – 1TWh (a billion kilowatt-hours) a year – and the availability of such a large electricity supply was undoubtedly an important factor in choosing the location, along with low year-round temperatures to save on cooling bills. Some reports suggest that Google will also have been attracted by the presence of wind turbine manufacturer WinWinD, which is building a wind farm close to the site – leading to speculation as to whether it will be a “wind powered” data centre.

This raises the issue of whether a data centre can claim to be “wind powered”, a question that is becoming more important as hosting providers are beginning to claim to have green, “wind powered” or “zero carbon” servers. Wind turbines need to be put in the right places to work effectively, and it’s highly unlikely that this is where a data centre will be built. What’s more, data centres need an absolutely constant source of electricity, which wind turbines obviously can’t supply, even if storage techniques are used. Consequently the data centre will need to be connected to the grid, and so will the wind turbines that supposedly power it. In other words there is unlikely to be any direct connection between the wind turbines and the data centre. So what is the difference between that and simply buying the electricity from Good Energy or Ecotricity’s 100% renewable tariff (as one hosting centre in Lincolnshire does)? In which case, isn’t it just taking power away from the (finite) amount of renewable electricity that is generated – little better than offsetting? This raises the question of “additionality” – if the hosting provider pays for the installation of new turbines, then perhaps it can claim to have a “wind powered” data centre, providing the turbines supply the same amount of electricity as the data centre uses over time. This is probably the only way such a claim can be made legitimately even though the only connection is the source of the investment – and the PR message that goes with it.