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.