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The truth is: data center power is out of control

At the end of December, I talked about how politics and technology will change data centers in 2016. But there’s another perspective you won’t hear much about: the big picture of energy usage.

Everyone prefers to talk about the efficiency of individual data centers, or the proportion of renewable energy they use. No one talks much about total energy used by data centers because the figures you get for that are annoying, depressing and frustrating.  

Graph business figures chart growth market research

Source: Thinkstock / Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Uncontrollable growth

The plain fact is that, no matter how efficiently we run them, data centers are expanding uncontrollably, and consuming increasing amounts of power. In fact, the efficiency improvements are contributing to the rapid growth.

In 2011, Google reported that it used 260MW of electric power. At the end of 2015 it has just announced a colossal bulk purchase of 781MW of renewable power for its data centers. That takes its total renewable usage contracts to 2GW of power.

Now renewable power is only part of the mix of input to Google’s data centers, and the company says renewables make up around 37 percent of its current usage. Right now, before those agreements come in, then, Google must have about 1.2GW of renewable purchase agreements. If that’s 37 percent of the total, that total power use must be around 3.2GW.

In other words, Google’s total power usage seems to have gone up 12-fold in the last four years. That is not far off doubling each year.

william stanley jevons

William Stanley Jevons

Source: Wikipedia

Fossils growing

This means that even though Google has increased its renewable usage, and plans to phase out fossils, it’s currently using more than ever. The fossil part of its energy is 2GW, or about eight times the total energy in 2011. Google’s efforts to use more renewables have so far not reduced its fossil energy use.

Facebook, Amazon and Apple are definitely growing the same way, and Microsoft and IBM certainly hope they are. These cloud providers are only a small part of the overall data center world (the colos and in-house sites outweigh them) but most sectors are growing.

So it’s a fair bet that the total power used by the world’s data centers is growing, and given that most data center providers are adopting renewables slower than Google, I think we can be pretty sure that the total amout of fossil fuels consumed by data centers is growing.

Now, there’s a very real way in which data center providers can’t be held responsible for this. Data centers are just meeting a demand.

But that demand seems to be endless. Most of the rampant growth is caused by growth in consumer services like Facebook, Youtube, Netflix and messaging. As long as these things are “free” or very cheap, people will go on consuming more of them indefinitely.

That’s the irony. By offering services really efficiently, the data center industry is fuelling massive growth. It is the Jevons Paradox once again, the 19th century conundrum proposed by economist William Stanley Jevons, that says if you make a process more efficient, you increase rather than reduce consumption.

Out of our control?

Individually, there is very little we can do about this. It’s just as hard to stop cheap junk displacing real food in our diet, or to stop fuel consumption going up when the price of oil falls, making motoring cheaper. 

Whatever world leaders promise, consumption is going to increase. The only things that seem to curb actual consumption are laws and taxes restricting it. For instance, city center car pollution goes up until usage is restricted by congestion charging zones (eg in London) or more extreme measures such as New Delhi’s laws where motorists can only drive on alternate days.

Is there a way to do anything like that with data center usage? The difficulty is, this an international business, and there is no world authority ready or able to limit power use by the Internet. And if 2015 taught us anything, it is that no one anywhere in the world is likely to increase taxes on data centers.

Putting the problem in perspective, data centers still have a smaller role in global warming than other industries, and may even displace some small parts of those other industries. That may be some consolation, but let’s keep the big picture in mind this year.

A version of this story appeared on Green Data Center News.

Readers' comments (9)

  • Why is the increase in data center power use always considered bad?
    Where is the consideration of the efficiency increases as a result of consolidating computer power and the increase in efficiency due to this increased computing power?
    Consider the improved work flows, reduction in printing and costs to transport and deliver the printing, the chemicals used to print all the pictures (and then dispose of them) that are now looked at digitally, the improved communications across the world, etc.

    The increase in computing power has many advantages but unfortunately since the power is concentrated it becomes an easy target for simple and incomplete analysis.

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  • Thanks Julian

    I'm not claiming a complete analysis. I'm not saying increased power use is bad of itself.

    I haven't seen or attempted any analysis which takes into account the power saved elsewhere by the increased data center usage. How would this be done?

    To take the example of printing pictures, we could look for a reduction in print worldwide (lots of magazines have closed down, I suppose), but only a tiny fraction of the pictures shared on Facebook replace any print. The rest is new usage, created by the ease and cheapness of the service. We could argue that this is part of improved communications, and then we'd be into a value judgement about whether this improvement is worth the energy put into it.

    True, this is simple and incomplete, but it is a step towards a big picture that we need to see.


  • Thanks Peter, very nice artice!
    Just have a little confusion about the power number of 3.2GW.
    I remember reading another artice in DCD predicts that the data center power consumption will be 13.25GW in 2016. If Google alone consumes 3.2GW, this prediction is way off. Anyidea, how much is the actual power consumed by Data Center in US in 2015?

    The previous article is with the following link:

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  • Good question, I'll run that past my colleagues in DCD Intelligence...


  • Here are some thoughts.

    Firstly, the 3.2GW consumed by Google is a global figure, and the 13.25GW figure you mention is just for the US, so they can certainly be consistent.

    Overall, our Intelligence division has updated its figures since those issued in 2013, so the current global figures/forecasts we quote are

    2015 46.505 GW
    2016 48.927 GW
    2020 57.880 GW

    There's more at DCD Intelligence (

    Or email

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  • Thanks Peter, I liked your article very much! In fact, it makes one of those seldom moments when reading an article in the industrial news I find similarities to my own research perspective, which focusses on a public and environmental interests and not just on effectivity and profit.
    In my view, the general public knows much too little about the DC industries energy usage, which makes people consume without thinking about the environmental and other impacts. Imagine if „simple people“ knew that much about DC as they for instance know of trafic related energy consumption and polution!? The DC industries life would probably be much more complicated...

    However, the deficit of public knowledge about potentially problematic DC energy consumption seems to be very much in interest of (at least some big and known) IT-companies (Facebook, Google, etc.), since their image and business model is fundamentally based on the imaginaries of free, immaterial and open for all social networks and services.

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  • Thanks Asta!


  • George Rockett

    Also consider the rough calculation that the delivery of 1.7 billion downloads of the Gangnam style video in 2013 required 312GWh of power (DRJULIANPE). That's not a great use of energy is it? I pay a fixed fee for unlimited broadband to my home and use the service for mainly email, surfing the net and occasionally watching BBC iPlayer; whilst my neighbour who has two teenage sons pays the same amount and uses considerably more. Hardly fair.

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  • Opportunity - For power companies to back development of renewable projects with long term contracts with their largest consumers (or just data centers if that's the case)

    Challenges: The delta between provisioned and used power to accurately assess what reality is. It seems that there is a bias towards using the provisioned power number vs actuals. In other words, I know clients who have 5MW provisioned/allocated and are using less than 1MW on a sustained basis. Big numbers make headlines, but what is the actual use of the electricity.

    The impact of efficiency has had must be accounted for somewhere too. It frees up load on the same infrastructure which would be measured at the actual consumption vs provisioned level too. Said another way, if a facility was provisioned for 5MW used 2MW consistently, but increased efficiency 30%, it would consume 600Kw less on the same provisioned power footprint and free up load within its allocated 5MW.

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  • 2015 46,505 GW
    2016 48,927 GW
    2020 57,880 GW

    Guessing that they are, but are the commas representing a decimal point? Or was the 13.25GW estimated number way too low?

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  • Thanks - yes they are decimal points.


  • I don't think we can be totally honest with ourselves about these number unless you include the number of servers decommissioned in the enterprise or SMBs as part of a move to a centralize IaaS providers (Cloud). Google, Amazon, MicroSoft, etc. are many times more efficient than the average enterprise. So workload shift vs growth must be part of this formula to really be convincing. It can't just be my Kids watching Netflix responsible for this growth...or can it?

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  • Hi Peter.

    We have recently conducted a big picture analysis (peer-reviewed journal paper) of the ICT Sector electricity usage from 2010-2030.

    It can be found here:

    I think it will be of huge interest to you and others interested in the topic of your post.

    Best regards from Anders Andrae, Huawei

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  • Many thanks Anders


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