Exploring the environmental impacts of data storage centers. This story was originally published on Banana Leaf.
Think Back to the Future. Tomorrowland. Meet the Robinsons. When we picture an ideal future, or when we see it on screen, a couple of hallmarks are always the same. One, it’s crisp and clean; the roads are sparkling, cities are structured and organized, and the air is fresh and breathable. Two, cognizant technology is rampant, and primarily facilitating societies operations. You know, flying cars, closets that know what you want to wear, subway systems zipping through the sky, that whole shabang.
With the way our technology and artificial intelligence systems today are accelerating, it seems that this techno-utopian ‘one day’ may just be in our reach. Yet, what we fail to consider is if these two hallmarks will be able to coexist long enough to get us there.
According to a 2018 article by Nathan Ensmenger, titled The Environmental History of Computing, technological innovation often comes at a cost in regards to climate change. While there’s the physical aspect of computing devices (now becoming outdated and replaced faster than ever), it still now feels like we’re moving towards a less resource intensive technology industry with innovations like the cloud taking over.
The amount of physical hardware, energy, and water consumption that all of this seemingly invisible technology actually requires, however, is enormous. For instance, a typical data center requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water to operate just on a single day.
As Esmenger describes, “the vast material infrastructure that makes it all possible has been deliberately dematerialized by technology companies into the ethereal and commodified Cloud.” Under the virtual realm of cyberspace, lies a vast web of wires, cables, towers and generators. One of the most shocking facts he presents was that if the Cloud was a country, it would be the sixth largest consumer of electricity on the planet (and that was two years ago).
He continues to describe this phenomenon, saying “unlike traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges and sewer systems, the Cloud seems to require no violence to the physical environment. It floats above, silent and unobtrusive, a force-of-nature rather than human-built technology.”
The use of water and energy by these pieces of infrastructure are immense, and has led to a significant problem of digital pollution in the developing world and even in technology hubs in the United States like Silicon Valley and New York. For instance, the IBM campus in New York was polluted by industrial toxins that were found to have cancer-causing effects.
“By making the physical world increasingly irrelevant,” Esmenger shares, “informational technology allows us to avoid confronting the consequences of our actions on the environment.”
This is an important concept to digest, particularly for an industry growing as fast as the technology one is, suggesting that greater scrutiny and restrictions may need to be placed upon it, particularly on invisible areas that receive little attention but may actually be doing the most damage. While people and policies are starting to push for greater attention to the environment, issues of how the tech sector are contributing to environmental issues are often swept under the rug. In fact, they’re typically applauded for small changes they are making that better the environment, potentially ignoring the larger problems they are contributing to.
A concrete emerging trend in response to this issue, is the rise of green data centers. These are data storage facilities that wield energy-efficient technologies (particularly low-power servers, modular data centers, free air cooling, hot and cold aisle containment, reusing waste heat, evaporative cooling and additional elements of solar, wind and geothermal energy) and green computing principles. You can determine whether or not a data center is an official green data center via the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the US Green Building Council or the Energy Star certification by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Additionally, this conversation on the potential detriments of big data storage is not to negate that there are also many ways in which artificial intelligence can boost sustainability efforts through projects like load monitoring to conserve energy and water or traffic facilitation to lower car carbon emissions. Instead, it’s to shed light on the other side of things that often goes overlooked, as it’s important to have as much knowledge as we can before knowing how we can move forward.
So, it’s difficult to provide an answer to this question of whether or not a clean planet and immense technology will be able to successfully coexist, but are important considerations to keep in mind looking ahead to our future — that now more than ever seems a little fuzzy.
On a hopeful note, as Esmenger concludes by saying, “there is no such thing as a free lunch, even in the virtual domain of cyberspace, but there are meals that are less expensive and more sustainable than others.”