Cloud storage's negative impact outweighs the positive

Data coverage, or cloud storage, is a model of networked online pools of storage where data is saved and usually hosted by third parties. The “hosts” are companies like Google or Facebook that operate the large data centers. A “cloud” is a set of computers jammed into a particular space.

The carbon footprints left behind by large businesses’ operating systems are causing friction in the environmental community. The problem lies with the massive amount of energy — used and unused — that goes into the data systems of large Internet companies.

One of the largest and most used operating systems is Google. The company provides email support for 425 million Gmail users; it processes 72 hours worth of video uploads per minute to YouTube while refreshing 20 billion Internet pages a day.

This is equivalent to the power used by all the homes in Irvine, Calif. — approximately 200,000 homes — roughly a quarter of the output of a standard nuclear power plant, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Most of the energy that data systems need in order to function is created by using heat and water to generate steam, which turns turbines that generate electricity. The massive amounts of energy is then distributed through a network of electric wires and into a transmission system through which it travels to your computer. The process of creating electricity harms the environment by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that servers and data centers are responsible for up to 1.5 percent of the total US electricity consumption, or roughly half a percent of United States greenhouse gas emissions for 2007.

In 2007, the entire information and communication technologies sector of large internet businesses was estimated to be responsible for roughly 2 percent of overall global carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from data centers are projected to double from 2007 levels by 2020, according to the “Report to Congress on Server and Data Center Energy Efficiency” from the U.S. EPA ENERGY STAR Program. If the business community continues to use this amount of energy in order to operate, who knows what environmental impacts humans will have to deal with.

Despite the environmental impacts, data storage is continuing to grow.

Facebook reported plans to build a $1.5 billion data center in Altoona, Iowa. The social media behemoth already has cloud storage facilities in Oregon and North Carolina.

The New York Times found that data centers often waste 90 percent, or more, of the electricity they consume. Energy is wasted by back-up generators that are in place if a power failure occurs. There’s even more energy going into ensuring the systems are maintaining a suitable temperature, according to the Chartered Institute for IT.

Silicon Valley, right down the peninsula from San Francisco, has had many data centers pop up on the Californian government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Emissions Inventory list, which shows the top diesel polluters in the state. According to Data Center Map, currently there are 21 data centers in San Francisco, most of which are located on California Street.

Companies like Facebook and Google are trying to use re-engineered software to cool their data systems down and reduce the amount of wasted power they produce. Currently Google’s data centers use about 300 million watts a day and Facebook uses about 60 million.

To put into perspective how involved the government is, no single government agency has the authority to track the industry’s energy consumption. The federal government was unable to determine how much energy its own data centers use, according to officials involved in a survey completed in 2011. What is known is that the number of federal data centers grew. In 1998 there were 432 and in 2010 the number jumped to 2,094.

First of all, our government, businesses and consumers need to closely monitor the energy consumption of cloud storage systems and use incentives for green innovation.

Second, companies need to respond with ways to make their growing businesses greener. Apple is trying to make its cloud storage system run entirely on renewable sources. If one company implements a change that works, the others should follow.

Third, consumers need to pressure cloud service providers to create a cleaner business. Consumers should know what systems they are using and what they can do to ensure the impact on the environment lessens.

It’s time for businesses to get their heads out of the clouds and realize, although they are making strides in technology and in global communication, they are doing irreversible damage to the environment. Clear skies aren’t on the horizon if business profits are prioritized over the health of our planet.

Latest comment
  • this is such terrible journalism. Yes, of course greenhouse gas emissions are terrible repercussion of these server farms, but I think it’s fair to say that the negative impact has been exaggerated. It “outweighs the positives”? I don’t believe that for a second.