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Home > iSGTW - 19 November 2008 > iSGTW Feature - Zero-carbon data centers

Feature - Zero-carbon data centers for green computing


“There are a number of companies (and universities) deploying zero carbon data centers in Canada and USA,” says St. Arnaud. “These data centers are solely powered by renewable resources.”  

Canadian sites—powered by water and wind—are shown here along with leased wavelength connections (red) and networks (blue and grey).

Image courtesy of CANARIE.

Information and communication technology (ICT), the fifth largest consumer of power in the world, currently contributes 3-4% of the world’s CO2 emissions—and is doubling every three to four years. To reduce its carbon footprint, the ICT industry has started relocating computing facilities to zero-carbon data centers at renewable energy sites.

Most of the energy used for ICT is supplied by coal, which is very dirty, explains Bill St. Arnaud of the Canadian Advanced Network and Research for Industry and Education (CANARIE). In a year, one medium sized server generates as much CO2 as an SUV with a fuel efficiency of 15 mpg (6.4 km/l) and the ICT industry’s total emissions are roughly equivalent to that of the entire aviation industry, according to a report by the UK’s Global Action Plan.

Most approaches to reduce ICT CO2 emissions focus on increasing energy efficiency of equipment and processes, but this is doomed to fail, says St. Arnaud. Greater efficiency reduces the overall cost of ICT operation, which promotes increased usage and thus creates more CO2. Instead, he says, the focus must be on a “zero-carbon” strategy.

Signatories to the agreement at the Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership Summit on 27 October.  From left John Halpern, VP of research at UBC, Charles Despins, president of PROMPT, and Jerry Sheehan representing Arthur Ellis, Vice Provost Research, UCSD. 

Image courtesy of Owen Egan   

Since cyberinfrastructure allows for relocation of data facilities to anywhere in the world, the ICT industry can greatly reduce its emissions by relocating computing resources to zero-carbon data centers powered by windmills, hydroelectric or geothermal sources.  There are currently at least 100 zero-carbon data centers around the globe and substantially more expected in the next decade. Many of these are being built by big ICT companies like Google and Microsoft. Key leaders in developing zero-carbon data centers include the U.S., Canada, U.K., Iceland, Lithuania, and Norway.

The University of California San Diego, the University of British Columbia and an organization in Quebec called Partnerships for Research on Microelectronics, Photonics and Telecommunications (PROMPT) just signed an agreement on October 27 to explore new cyber-architecture and establish best practices for reducing ICT CO2 emissions. The group will also examine potential virtual carbon trading systems where carbon reduction is traded for access to virtual services such as grid computational cycles and wide area network bandwidth.

“If we don’t do something about the ICT industry’s increasing CO2 contribution, it will probably become one of the more significant contributions to global warming in the next decade,” St. Arnaud says. “The ICT and internet communities are well-positioned not only to reduce their own emissions to zero, but also to help other sectors of society reduce their carbon footprint.”

Amelia Williamson, for iSGTW

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