Increasingly, the lives of Americans--and indeed, the world--run on data. Facebook (News - Alert) posts, tweets, orders placed with online shopping sites...all of these are driven by data. In a world where big data is every bit a marketing method as it is an objective assessment of just how much data is flying around out there, it's good news for one sector: data centers. But hot on the heels of this development is the idea that the power grid may not be able to match the demand of the growing number, and power, of data centers.
Recent reports suggested that, assuming no advances are made in energy efficiencies--which are actually planned to be put into place by 2030--data center demand for power will be roughly two thirds the size of the demand for power experienced by the aluminum industry in the 1980s, or when power use to drive aluminum manufacture was at its peak. Essentially, the equivalent of a whole new heavy industry would crop up and strain the power grid.
Considering the Pacific Northwest’s extreme advantages for data center location--favorable tax profiles complete with state incentives, low energy costs, a mild overall climate for helping to keep power bills low and data centers cool--it's easy to see why more of them would show up there, and in turn, what kind of harm that could do to the power grid in the area. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council recently released a revised report of its Northwest Power Plan that suggested demand could increase by about seven percent every year for the 20 years the plan covered, though improved energy efficiency measures could drop that gain to only three percent per year, basically taking demand from just over double to about half again as much as is in play right now.
Some of those efficiency measures are fairly simple to enact, like altering workloads among data centers around the world so that the bulk of processing is done during off-peak hours, a practice referred to as "following the moon". Other methods are especially well-suited to the Pacific Northwest region, like using evaporative cooling or using exclusively outside air to cool servers.
But with data computing growing at an astonishing rate--Facebook alone accounts for around 526 million logins per day, and that number is up 41 percent over just last year--it's clear that a problem may well be in the making. While demand for power at data centers is on the rise, the demand for power hasn't gone down any to compensate at homes. While the economy may have done a number on the power demands of some businesses, thanks to reduced hours of operation or outright closures, they're still representing a hefty component of power grid demand. That's combining to suggest a major move in infrastructure building may be necessary--the idea of an aging power grid that desperately needs supplementing and in some cases outright replacement is not a new one--which will take a lot of time and cash to do correctly, elements which are often short at most every level, including state and local governments.
A solution of some type needs to be in the offing, and in rapid fashion, lest we find ourselves without our data centers, and without the power we rely on every day.
Edited by Rachel Ramsey