The Energy Demand of ‘the Bones of Cyberspace’

How much electricity does it take to power the Cloud?

Terminal Commerce Building in North Philadelphia, originally an Art Deco furniture warehouse, now one of the largest data centers in the Northeast United States. Literally and figuratively behind the building, underlying the digital connectivity to ‘the cloud’, to cyberspace, is massive amounts of energy infrastructure. While we don’t really “see” even this building, it has a presence on north Broad Street, the main north-south road through Philadelphia. The energy systems maintaining this data center are in the background, inside and on top of, but mostly behind the massive structure. The corner of north 13th St. and Callowhill looking west. This view shows the immensity of the building nicely (note the yellow school bus for scale). October 2014.

This short essay is an addendum to the essay The Urban, Infrastructural Geography of the Cloud, a piece of writing that was chosen as an Ars Technica Editor’s Pick by Cyrus Farivar, shared widely on social media, and described by William Gibson as an exploration of “the bones of cyberspace”. Underlying these digital bones is energy in the form of electricity, and while a full examination of the energy demands of ‘the cloud’, of cyberspace, is certainly merited, here I present a snippet of a larger, ongoing project on the energy demands of mobile connectivity, the Internet, and our digital lives.

The first photo at the top of this post shows in wide-angle two sides of the Terminal Commerce Building, from the opposing sidewalk. If you head east on Callowhill, that one way street running right to left in the photo, past the block long, barren expanse of the building itself, you would reach into the energy-focused side of the data center.

The first thing you’d notice is the hum of massive air-cooling units, each the size of a shipping container (see below for a street-level view of one of these units). Continue past the data center and you would reach an electricity sub-station. The presence of the sub-station highlights both how much energy is consumed to power this part of ‘the cloud’, so much that it links directly into the power grid itself.

Cooling equipment directly behind Terminal Commerce Building, on north 13th Street. There are many, many more of these cooling units in the area. October 2014.

In addition to the digital geography of ‘the cloud’, the constant, pervasive creation of wireless connectivity requires enormous amounts of electrical energy. ‘The cloud’ or cyberspace, whatever we term it and I’ll go back and forth in this essay, is co-produced through both digital systems and the electricity that enables the storage and transmission of digitized data. Moving ‘the cloud’s’ services to and between users necessitates an immense and dispersed energy infrastructure of regionally integrated electricity generation powering globally networked digital infrastructure. As discussed earlier, the storage of data in particular creates a distributed ecology of servers, fiber-optic cables, and network equipment that form an infrastructural geography of ‘the cloud’; this infrastructural geography has a material form in buildings like the Terminal Commerce Building in North Philadelphia. Maintaining and transferring this data around requires enormous amounts of electrical energy; in turn these electrical systems have their own interconnected infrastructures that are often found in close proximity to data centers.

Given how often and how quickly the technologies of ‘the cloud’ evolve and change, it is difficult to gauge the full measure of energy demand of ‘the cloud’. It is likely much of the facts and figures presented below are outdated, but they still offer a glimpse into the energy systems associated with ‘the cloud’ and its infrastructure. What is important is not finding the exact amount of energy consumed to power cyberspace, but to begin to acknowledge that distributed alongside our digital and mobile lives, always connected, always on, is also always electrical energy. Without it, there is no ‘cloud’, no cyberspace.

A PECO electricity substation behind the Terminal Commerce Building, powering cyberspace, enabling ‘the cloud’. The materiality of all this electrical infrastructure belies both the metaphors of ‘the cloud’ as ephemeral and also makes visible the mundane equipment that enables our mobile, digital lives. This electrical equipment sits adjacent to and behind the cooling equipment. Proximity to the electricity grid means the data center is less-likely to suffer from a power-outage, and if it did it would not last as long as areas further from PECO’s equipment. Like all data centers, Terminal Commerce Building maintains multiple-levels of redundant, uninterruptible backup power supply, both battery based and with diesel generators.

The energy demand of ‘the cloud’ is not insignificant:

“Direct electricity used by information technology equipment in data centers represented about 0.5% of total world electricity consumption in 2005. When electricity for cooling and power distribution is included, that figure is about 1%. Worldwide data center power demand in 2005 was equivalent (in capacity terms) to about seventeen 1000 MW power plants” (Koomey 2008)

“Worldwide electricity consumption for all communication networks is 1.8% of total energy use.” (Lambert et al. 2012)

“As of 2007, the average datacenter consumed as much energy as 25,000 homes. There are at least 5.75 million new servers deployed into new and existing data centers every year. Data centers account for at least 1.5% of US energy consumption and demand is growing 10% per year,” (Bartels 2011)

Globally, these digital warehouses use about 30 billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of thirty nuclear power plants (Glanz 2012). Interestingly and importantly when considering this energy use, data centers “were using only six percent to twelve percent of their electricity powering their servers to perform computations. The rest was essentially used to keep servers idling and ready in case of a surge in activity that could slow or crash their operations” (Glanz 2012). Of that output equivalent to thirty nuclear power plants, only 1.8 to 3.6 of those nuclear power plants energy output went to delivering ‘the cloud’s’ services. The rest went to keeping the ‘the cloud’ able to transmit some piece of data to a user in the split-second connection we have come to expect for accessing our digital services.

Digital infrastructure requires the input of significant amounts of electrical energy with its own geography and material impacts, from power plants, nuclear and otherwise, to high-voltage transmission lines and urban sub-stations routing energy to data centers themselves. ‘The cloud’, while accessible, essentially, everywhere around the world, is inseparable from regional electrical power grids, which are a very grounded, equipment-heavy, resource-intensive infrastructure: not cloud-like at all. The bones of cyberspace are not just data centers, network equipment, fiber-optic cabling, and cellular antenna sites, but also and more importantly, the electrical energy that powers these interconnected digital systems.


The research underlying this essay was supported by an international research fellowship at the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University. If you enjoyed this essay, check out plenty more writing about infrastructure and urbanization at my blog: http://www.everydaystructures.com/


A final photo to leave you with: at the south-east corner of the Terminal Commerce Building is a long-closed United States Post Office. According to an essay at Hidden City Philadelphia, the building had its own zip code at one time. Commenters mention that the post office was open as late as the 1990s. The transformation of the building into a data center necessitated the grafting-on of electricity and cooling equipment. The shift to digital uses of the building and the subsequent loss of workers employed within meant the closure of the post office, even though information, now in digital form, still moves in and out of here.

A closed United States Post Office on the back-side of the Terminal Commerce Building. The structure’s utility shifted from warehousing furniture and other physical objects, or holding offices that workers would come and go from daily, to now holding servers containing cyberspace/’the cloud’. The transmission of information in and out of the building has always mattered, even when that movement was paper-based and involved the post office. February 2011.