Legitimate questions are being asked about data center power use. In some locations, digital facilities are consuming a large proportion of the available capacity of the electric grid, and demanding levels of renewable electricity which could jeopardize national strategies to decarbonize electric grids, or using more water than their neighbors.
The industry's response? A two-minute animated video which flatly tells us to back off. We need to have these data centers, it says, because we are using the services they provide.
Frankly, I'm disappointed.
Please stop hating us!
Last week, the European Data Center Association (EUDCA) sent us a message, complaining about the "bashing" the industry gets in what it calls the "mainstream media." The EUDCA asked us to publish what it describes as an educational video to set the record straight
What could possibly have got this normally staid industry group so upset? Apparently, the BBC had the temerity to examine the energy and water use of the data center sector in a half-hour Panorama program, entitled Is the Cloud Damaging the Planet?
I have to say, I thoroughly recommend watching the Panorama show for a mature and well-put-together exploration of the environmental impact of the digital infrastructure sector.
Reporter Richard Bilton talks to academics and activists, data center professionals, and end users. He goes to the US, Ireland,. England and Norway. He covers genuine issues including the problems with Ireland's power grid (which caused one operator Dataplex to close), water usage in Nevada, and the electricity distribution issue which paused some house building in West London.
Bilton has done his homework - and I suspect some of his research was done on these pages.
He points the finger at users as well as the industry, acknowledging that cloud growth is driven at least partly by consumers: "The cloud is the environmental problem we are making worse. Our use of the cloud comes at a price."
Is this education?
The BBC Panorama show raised a question that should be asked.
In certain areas, data centers have become a significant power consumer: Ireland has two million households, and data centers use the same power as 200,000 of them, for instance. That level of energy use should at least be scrutinized.
I have to say, the official response from EUDCA is inadequate, patronizing, and misses the point.
A spokesperson for EUDCA criticized an environmental campaigner in the film for using TikTok, when Bilton made it quite clear that these actions do add to the demands of the cloud. They also sniped at Bilton for getting on planes to cover the story, when we at DCD know very well that data center executives are very happy to jet around - sometimes (we admit) to attend our events.
The EUDCA video, titled Europe's Data Centres Explained - the Hidden Technology Behind Modern Life, isn't about scrutiny. EUDCA says it wants to clear up "misconceptions," but it's actually telling us not to question the level of data center development.
"Hospitals, universities, airports, government ministries, mobile phone companies, online stores, transport systems, banks, you name it- they all rely on data centers to work!" says the video.
Across the whole of Europe, data centers use around three percent of power, "far less than the alternatives, such as running the same equipment in smaller and less efficient buildings, or [as a drift of animated paper covers the screen] going analog."
The video says data centers are designed to be efficient, offer their heat for reuse, and directly fund renewable energy, before ending with a plug for the EUDCA's Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, and a cheery reminder: "You just used a data center to watch this video!"
A release from EUDCA expands, pointing out (as the Panorama program did) that we all use the Internet, saying people should understand that "when their GPS re-routes a journey to avoid major traffic, money appears in their bank account moments after splitting a bill with dining companions, or sales goods are delivered the day after they were bought online – none of that happens without data centers.”
More education needed
Let's be candid. Three percent of electricity is smaller than the power used by lots of other things, but it's not negligible. It is more than the amount of electricity used by electric cars in Europe (which is scheduled to reach four percent of the total by 2030). And it is not going to decrease. No matter that the sector is going to net-zero, it's still growing in its actual capacity.
And remember also, we are in a climate emergency, so no sector gets a free pass. .
The EUDCA knows that data center heat reuse is pitifully rare, and only a tiny step towards countering their energy. And the renewable energy directly funded is all for the data centers' own use (and if they don't match their energy use hourly, just makes the problem of balancing the grid worse).
The latest IPCC report makes it clear that we need to drastically change our energy habits if we are to minimize the overshoot beyond a temperature rise of 1.5C, above which human populations and the ecosystem will be irreparably harmed.
In this emergency, absolutely every use of energy, from holidays by international jet travel, to the use of cloud services should be evaluated. We cannot continue business as usual, and our lifestyles must change. Is your energy use really necessary? Will you forego anything at all, so we leave our children with a habitable planet?
Today's colocation data centers, and cloud instances, are more efficient than small on-prem facilities. That is true, but only case-by-case. That very efficiency encourages us to use more of their services, so once we've soaked up the efficiency gain, usage will increase. It will increase to a higher level, because of Jevons' Paradox.
It's idiotic to compare the energy use of cloud services with their analog equivalents, because digital drives consumption. Today, a person with a smartphone will take thousands of photos a year, and keep them in the cloud, just because they can. They could not conceivably have taken that many photos with a film camera. People could not read as many words on paper as they do on the Net.
But should they?
We need to look hard at every industry, and call a halt when its impact exceeds its value. Oil passed that point long ago. Any industry which is granted uncontrolled growth with no scrutiny will eventually outspend its environmental budget.
The cloud industry needs to get a thicker skin, and stop whining when the media asks questions. These questions are real. They are already being asked by governments including those of Dublin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Singapore, and consumer engagement alongside this is to be welcomed.
We should know the point at which the environmental costs of the cloud exceed would outbalance the benefits of further usage and, at that point, be prepared to pull the plug.