EPA: U.S. needs more power plants to support data centers

Data center energy use to double in five years unless steps are taken, agency says

WASHINGTON -- The rate at which computers and data centers are using power will double in five years, a rate so rapid that the U.S. will need 10 more electric power plants over that period just to keep up, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in a report released today.

But like Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the EPA report predicts a future that can be changed -- or at least tweaked.

If IT managers become more Scrooge-like in managing power, and pinch their consumption wherever they can through the adoption of best practices and more efficient technologies, energy consumption can be cut, the EPA argues.

But broader efforts will be needed as well, including "objective, credible information" about the performance of new technologies, combined with federal leadership on data center efficiency and a challenge to the private sector to do more to cut power. Standardized performance measures are also needed, the EPA said.

That is the upshot of a report that treats the entire country as one gigantic user in measuring consumption by all the servers and storage systems in data centers, as well as the systems needed to cool them. It found that electric power consumption doubled from 2000 to 2006 and will double again in five years to reach 100 kilowatt-hours a year by 2011, if nothing changes.

Data centers and servers today account 61 billion kWh annually or 1.5% of the nation's power usage. The federal government is responsible for 10% of that use.

But this report, produced in response to congressional legislation to examine data center power consumption, found "significant potential for energy-efficiency improvements" in data centers with existing technologies and design strategies.

"I really hope it shines a light on a really great opportunity," said Andrew Fanara, a team leader in the EPA's Energy Star program that spearheaded research for the report, which involved major IT vendors. While the IT sector will continue to grow, and needs to because it "makes us more efficient as an economy overall," it's critical to make these systems as efficient as possible, he said.

"If we're going to stabilize and reduce emissions, longer term, we have to slow and then reverse to some degree areas and sectors where emissions are growing," said Fanara.

For individual IT managers, Fanara said he hopes the takeaway from the report is that best practices do matter and that energy-efficient systems are needed from vendors. But in absolute terms, energy use by computer systems will continue to rise, he said.

The rise in power consumption parallels the growth of the Internet, online commerce and the pervasiveness of IT in almost every aspect of life. From a technology perspective, the systems most responsible for gobbling up power are the relatively low-cost x86 servers -- called volume servers in the report and by the industry -- and typically running with one to two physical processors.

There are efforts under way by industry groups and the EPA to develop a metric to allow IT managers to compare power use against workloads for these lower-end servers. The EPA is also interested in seeing development of a standard that would allow IT managers to measure the total power consumption against the power consumed inside a data center, giving data center managers a benchmark to use.

Some data center power reduction efforts will likely take new construction of a data center, but state-of-the art technologies, coupled with best practices -- including aggressive server and storage consolidation, power management, liquid cooling, among other things -- could reduce a data center's energy usage by 55%. These gains can be achieved without compromising data center performance, the EPA said.

But the EPA also outlines the barriers to adoption of these improvements, such as a separation of responsibility between the IT manager and facilities managers. The facilities manager pays the utility bill, the IT manager does not. The EPA said this splits the incentives for reducing power consumption.

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