Commercial, Demand Management, Energy Efficiency, Industrial  -  June 28, 2016

With help from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, data center energy use levels after years of rapid growth

Partially driven by the efforts of companies like Amazon Inc. and Google Inc. to reduce the energy intensity of data centers, a new report has found that electric consumption from U.S. data centers has plateaued after rapidly rising for more than a decade.

The report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory marks the first comprehensive energy analysis of data centers in nearly 10 years and shows electric consumption from the facilities tapering off in 2010 and remaining steady ever since — less than 2% of total U.S. consumption — even as the number and size of  data centers continues to rise. 

What's more, data center electric consumption is projected to maintain a low growth rate through 2020 while the total server installed base is projected to increase by 40% from 2010 to 2020, according to the report. 

“Over that decade, the amount of energy savings is about 620 billion kilowatt-hours, or more than $60 billion, thanks to efficient practices,” Berkeley Lab researcher Arman Shehabi, one of the lead authors of the report, said in statement announcing its release.

The last such comprehensive analysis was done in 2008, a report to Congress that was also by Berkeley Lab. That report found that electricity use by data centers was doubling every five years, due largely to explosive growth in both the number and density of data centers.

“The idea that electricity use is doubling every five years is still commonly believed to this day,” Shehabi said. “In fact there have been tremendous strides in efficiency. But there are still tremendous opportunities in the near term.”

The authors of the new report, several of whom also worked on the 2008 report, collected data on shipments of servers and storage, networking, and other equipment and then built a model to project data center energy consumption. They included data centers that ranged in size from a closet with fewer than five servers to “hyperscale” computing facilities with tens of thousands of servers in hangar-sized buildings, such as those operated by companies like Google and Amazon.

Overall, they found that the larger data centers have made significant advances in operating more efficiently. At the same time, smaller data centers, which are not increasing in number but still projected to account for 60% of all data center energy use in 2020, are still often inefficient.

"The industry growth is primarily in hyperscale data centers, but there’s opportunity in the typical corporate or institutional data center,” author Dale Sartor said. “There are millions of them in closets or small rooms, and they’re not very efficient.”

The researchers found three main reasons for the improvements in energy efficiency in larger sites, which are typically owned by major tech players. Microsoft, for example, has made so much progress in the energy efficiency of its data centers that it has shifting focus to distributed energy and storage to do more to offset their energy use. 

"There's only so much efficiency — at least in data center design itself, you have a whole other issue of how you architect software — but as we think about just data center design, there's only so much efficiency you can eek out before you kind of start getting into diminishing returns," Microsoft's director of energy strategy recently told Smart Energy Decisions. "So now, we ask, where are the opportunities for increased inefficiencies once you've squeezed out a lot of that overhead?" 

The full data center report from the lab is available here

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