Data Centers

Google: Green good guy or power grid glutton?

On March 29, Google "turned off the lights" on its home page, changing the standard white theme to black for Earth Hour. But Google also came under fire in March for the power consumption of its new data center in Oregon.

On March 29, Google "turned off the lights" on its home page, changing the standard white theme to black (see below) for Earth Hour, a global grassroots initiative in which businesses and communities turned off the lights for an hour as a symbolic commitment to energy conservation.

Google's black homepage to salute Earth Hour on Mar. 29. See the full photo gallery Google goes black to show that it is green.

Beyond Google's support for Earth Hour, the company has publicly stated that it has a "commitment to a clean and green energy future" and that "efficiency and innovation are central Google values." Some of its green initiatives have included:

However, despite its altruistic talk and green programs, Google has also come under fire for the ravenous energy consumption of its data centers. The March 2008 edition of Harper's Magazine contains a sober indictment of Google's forthcoming data center in Dalles, Oregon, in the article "Keyword: Evil -- Google's addiction to cheap electricity."

The Harper's article accuses Google of making back room deals with politicians to ensure tax breaks, subsidies, and cheap energy so that it can run as much power as it wants and needs for its massive server farms along the Columbia River.

Author Ginger Strand writes:

"Don't be evil," the motto of Google, is tailored to the popular image of the popular -- and the information economy itself -- as a clean, green twenty-first century antidote to the toxic excesses of the last century's industries. The firm's plan to develop a gigawatt of renewable energy recently caused a blip in its stock price and was greeted by the press as a curious act of benevolence. But the move is part of a campaign to compensate for its own excesses, which can be observed on the banks of the Columbia River, where Google and its rivals are raising server farms to tap into some of the cheapest electricity in North America. The blueprints depicting Google's data center at The Dalles, Oregon, are proof that the Web is no ethereal store of ideas, shimmering over our heads like the aurora borealis. It is a new heavy industry, and energy glutton that is only growing hungrier.

It's hard to know how much power one of Google's data centers actually consumes because the company considers that information a trade secret. Google argues that its competitors could use power information to estimate how many servers it is running and then somehow use that to better compete against Google search.

I find that argument disingenuous since it's Google's software algorithm that makes its search better than its competitors and has nothing to do with the number of servers. Nevertheless, Google has duped a number of government agencies into believing this line of thinking and thus making exceptions to open access laws so that Google does not have to reveal power data, as my colleague John Sheesley reported in the article How much does it take to power a data center? It's none of your business.

In separate article -- Big data centers = big environmental footprints -- Sheesley reported on data centers built by Microsoft and Yahoo in Washington state, just north of the new Google data center. Microsoft's data center in Quincy, Washington, consumes 48 megawatts of power, which is 30% more power than all 30,000 homes in the county where it's located. Yahoo's data center in Wenatchee, Washington, consumes 40 megawatts of power, or three times as much power as all 12,000 homes in the city of Wenatchee.

If we assume that Google is on the low end and is consuming 40 megawatts at each of its data centers -- and Google has at least 40-50 data centers worldwide -- then it's easy to understand why some critics see that kind of power consumption overshadowing the fact that Google has a task force that is looking for ways to to create 1 gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper and cleaner than coal.

Bottom line for IT leaders

If Google, which has a track record of supporting energy conservation, is coming under fire for the power consumption of its data centers, then it's a safe bet that large companies will soon be scrutinized for how much power their IT infrastructures are consuming. IT leaders should know how much power their IT equipment is pulling each year and how much it costs, plus undertake due diligence to find some big levers that they can pull to reduce energy consumption when needed.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

26 comments
davidbier
davidbier

Well, and Robin Hood was a thief and a gang-leader, yet we like his story for what he did with the money, not how he got it. Which weighs more - the means or the end? If you have the algorithm to measure and define THAT I think the entire world would want to know about it.

jstack6
jstack6

google is very green. They give new employees a bicycle on the 1st anniversary, they have plug-in hybrids, solar and improve server energy use all the time. You can do reasearch on cat mandu without ever leaving home. I have no complaints about google. Now how YOU use their service could be good or a waste. YOU determine it.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

So Google turns their page black for an hour on Saturday night. Such makes for a perfect example of what the "green" movement has become about; Symbolism over substance, feel good marketing and fascism. Of course, I really can't blame Google. Even corporate executives who know that anthroprogenic "global warming" is politically motivated junk science have dragged their companies down this path out of PR necessity. Heck, even the oil companies are spending millions promoting their "greenness". Nobody can afford to be left out lest they by labeled insensitive and evil destroyers of the planet. Heck, even Steve Ballmer feels compelled to proclaim that the worlds most inefficient operating system is, in fact, "green". But let's talk privacy: I don't think it's disingenuous for Google to argue that the number of servers they use is a trade secret. It's clearly is relevant, or nobody would be asking the question! I also believe that Google's success isn't just about their super-secret algorithm, but how it's deployed over countless inexpensive servers which give them not only impressive capability, but incredible redundancy. I think this "how much power are you using" question smacks of the fascism that is at the core of the "green" movement. Is it really our business how much power they use? What's next? Did you turn off your lights on Saturday night? Why not? How many squares of toilet paper are you using per sit? Keep this up America. Or else most of Google's new data centers will be in India or China, where they really couldn't care less about carbon emissions, toxic waste, mercury poisoning, etc.

RealGem
RealGem

Is it common for data centers to reclaim the waste heat generated by the server farms? There are a lot of technologies such as heat exchangers, thermocouples, etc. that can be used to re-use the heat and create electricity. What someone needs to do is come with a practical way to capture this heat instead of just running massive A/C. You probably cannot avoid the latter, but might be able to reduce the need for it.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Reactors use carbon rods as their energy generating source.The reactor's design is like a big carbon arc lamp that they can just pour the power to without the rod melting.The heavy water is a common electrical connecting point.It doesn't come apart under these conditions.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...Robin Hood took back from the state (the Church and land-owners were the de-facto governments of the time) and gave back to the taxpayers. In any other context, he'd be called a revolutionary.

alex.a
alex.a

Who woulda thunk it? First-year anniversarians might get bicycles, but what do the board of directors drive to work? I'm reminded of the line from the play Marat/Sade which describes people caught up in the ideals of the French Revolution but who have little use for the resulting "equality": "They wear the people's cap on their heads, but their underwear's embroidered with crowns."

alex.a
alex.a

>> Or else most of Google's new data centers will be in India or China, where they really couldn't care less about carbon emissions, toxic waste, mercury poisoning, etc.

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

Do you personally believe that "anthroprogenic "global warming" is politically motivated junk science" or is that intended as a derisive remark concerning corporations that deny it? Just wondering...

nunna
nunna

I didn't know that, Balthor. Since the carbon rods are the energy generating source, what do they use the uranium for? I understand how the heavy water can be the electrical connection - if you have enough volume it can handle a lot of energy - but I don't see where the uranium comes into play.

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

Shouldn't the focus be more on whether the energy that is being consumed by these server farms is sufficiently beneficial to justify their existence? I think it's critical that ALL the major power consumers - not just Google - do everything they can to reduce their carbon footprint and use renewable energy sources whenever possible. I also think ANY large power user that is seriously researching ways to reduce the environmental impact of their operation is justified in blowing their own horn about it - as long as they really are doing the research. But for me, the bottom line is whether the service the company provides is beneficial enough to justify the power use. If it is not, than nothing the company does to offset its consumption is sufficient justification.

brian.mills
brian.mills

It seems to me that any time an organization or person either speaks out against some societal evil or takes a stand supporting some common good initiative, it's only a matter of time before someone catches them with their hands in the cookie jar. While I'd like to believe that Google can rise above the rest and actually be the one that's true to its principles, the reality is that they're probably not. Or they could very well be doing everything they can while still turning enough of a profit to keep the shareholders happy but just not enough to keep up with the massive energy expense of running their massive datacenters. I don't know much about corporate laws or government policies, but in this day and age of increased emphasis on "green" technology, I don't think any company should be able to keep such tight wraps on its energy consumption. But then again, I may still have somewhat of an idealistic view of how the world should work. I am still in my twenties, afterall.

Mr_Fen
Mr_Fen

hang on I need to google that Robin Hood fact... Green or not they provide a popular worldwide service, if its only 'eco lip service' then shame on them. They do have more solar power and eco/hybrid car facilities for their campuses than any other business I have seen.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...to putter about the globe in. It burns about 12,000 pounds of fuel an hour. A single cross-country trip would release more CO2 than most SUVs would in a lifetime. The modern "green" movement reminds me much of my days at school, where very few of the countless Marxists I met were planning on being just one of the "workers".

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...I doubt they will care, as will few people here care once their jobs are gone and they have more immediate concerns.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I reject the notion of anthroprogenic "global warming" just as the world rejected anthroprogenic "global cooling" 30 years ago. http://denisdutton.com/newsweek_coolingworld.pdf I personally believe that the political agenda behind anthroprogenic "global warming" is for the political elite class to gain control over the masses that they have not been able consolidate via market or democratic methods. Clear enough?

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...then nobody will purchase their services, and they will cease to exist, thus reducing their "carbon footprint" to zero. Problem solved.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Just because we live "in this day and age of increased emphasis on 'green' technology" does it mean that somehow everybody is entitled to details about everyone else's private activities. I'm certain that you wouldn't enjoy such scrutiny. How many "squares" do you use during each sit? Cheryl Crow is asking.

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

on both sides of the political fence, regardless of the issue. I love the word "kleptocracy", by the way. Thanks for the link.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...if you're allowed to "cherry pick" your data, as many of "warming" advocates have. Also, how confident should you be in NASA?s data, considering their recent concessions?: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/216695/Global_Warming_Debate_Reignited_After_NASA_Quietly_Corrects_Temperature_Data (btw, the NASA link you sent was not working this morning; they must of known I was coming) How much attention did this get? Do note the mass-media's position on this; any argument for "warming", no matter how unsupported gets widely and repeatedly reported. Any data against is either buried, or discounted as biased propaganda. For example, do you know that the famous "hockey stick" model (the one that virtually erased historically recorded events as the ?little ice age?) used by the alarmists in support of adoption of the Kyoto Protocols has been largely discredited, even by many who originally supported it? Probably not, since any argument against warming must obviously be part of some sort of right-wing plot. So what if the data is fabricated? Isn?t saving the planet more important? I think it?s fair to argue that scientists under the employ of industry should be scrutinized for possible biases on behalf of their employers. But why is it that we should not employ the same scrutiny to scientists who are under the employ of the government or universities? After all, they have job security to worry about as well. If all of the grant money is directed at proving ?warming?, should we not be surprised that we will see ?science? that is designed to support that view?

Lizzie_B
Lizzie_B

I often have trouble telling if someone's being sarcastic or sardonic in print; I appreciate the clarification. What then do you make of the climate data that NASA has gathered? Is it fabricated, misinterpreted, misrepresented or what? http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/GlobalWarmingUpdate/ Please understand that I do not disagree with you regarding the motives of the political elite, nor do I doubt their willingness to use any and all means at their disposal to control the populace - including distortion, fabrication and suppression of research, manipulation of the media, extortion, coercion and threats. We've seen it happen time and again. I interpret what I'm seeing as the powers-that-be doing their best to suppress the data on climate change, thereby defending the industrial power base and its economics. You seem to have the opposite view and I'm interested in knowing how you reached that conclusion. I'm trying to understand, not attack your position.

brian.mills
brian.mills

After really giving it some thought, and reading some of the other posts in this thread, I'm not sure who else needs to know. The only reason I can think of for anyone else to know about power consumption would be to back up claims of "going green", you know, show some numbers to prove they're not just blowing smoke.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...who knows exactly how much power they are consuming. Who else needs to know?

brian.mills
brian.mills

There is usually some oversight on the part of the government as to the amount of energy a company's facilities consume. Google has asked for special consideration to not have to disclose information that is normally required, stating that it will expose trade secrets that competitors can use to gain an unfair advantage. That combined with all the publicity about pushing for green technology makes it sound to me like they're covering up excessive power usage within their own systems. Energy usage is a big concern due to both fuel availability for the power plants and pollution levels steadily rising all around the world. I don't really care how much energy any company is using, only that they're complying with whatever regulations they should be complying with. But if companies are withholding energy consumption information, how can regulators know whether they're complying or not?

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