Is building a data center more sustainable than building a soccer field?

I fully expect controversy will be created by this blog especially amongst some of my awesome friends in the Sustainability/Green space and I am not actually advocating putting away the cleats and buying a game console.

This blog will probably anger some of my friends who are parents. However, it's not meant to suggest a specific change as much as an effort to get us looking at the real issues, and not be taken in by loud mouthed commentators on both sides of the sustainability issue. The idea for this blog was generated while I was attending a Sustainable Silicon Valley event in Palo Alto with the Ambassador to Norway, the Honorable Barry White.

Could playing soccer really be worse than playing video games for the environment?

Much ado has been made about the amount of energy utilized by power hungry data centers and new technology in general. It's estimated that over 3% of the power used in the US goes directly to running all our data centers. That's an amazing figure especially when you compare how relatively few data centers there are versus cars or traditional office buildings. However, the question I've asked before and I am now asking again (only in a different way) is; are those data centers actually hurting us or are they benefiting us by consolidating IT gear and providing us efficiencies through the use of technology?

An obvious comment by the kill data centers at all cost groups might be that we need to find a way to reduce the creation of applications and technologies that require a data center.  Interestingly enough, it seems data centers are trying to save our planet and kids playing soccer are killing the planet.  Here's the scenario.

Save the Earth, Play a video game

Video Game (PS3 or Xbox360) vs. playing soccer on a club team (could be volleyball or basketball, doesn't matter)

Being Driven to Soccer

Impact

Video Game Console, Sound & TV combined

Impact

10 miles driving @ 20 MPG city

.5 gallons of gas @ 32.91 kWh per gallon

4 hours of play

Combined power  used 1.8 kWh*

Extra clothes washed

?

Lights on

?

Grass cut & watered

?

Fridge opened 4 time

?

Equipment made/cleaned

?

Cloud based compute & network resources used

1 kWh (generous)

Total

16.45 kWh

 

2.8 kWh

Why the question marks (?) in the above table? I felt that considering the overwhelming numbers put up just by driving the car, there was no need to make a point of any of the other resources utilized. Also, it could easily be argued that the other activities associated with Soccer are much more impactful than the activities associated with video game playing. Even if you only drove once for every 5 times you played four hours of video games, you would still have a greater negative impact on sustainability.

*Perspective:  It's important to note that a cabinet filled with high performance servers uses approximately 25 kW of power per hour.  Even the use of an all-electric vehicle doesn't make soccer more sustainable than playing video games (est. impact of electric vehicle in the above example would by 5.5 kWh used)

  • That same 25 kWh cabinet filled with running servers can support thousands of gamers, Google searches, map requests, travel bookings, financial research, etc. all at the same time.

It isn't always obvious what being sustainable is:

Solar panels:  The rumors abound regarding the negative impact of construction and waste of solar panels. One estimate I heard was that it takes 20 years to recover the carbon created during construction. However, upon further research I found just the opposite. Solar panels seem to be an excellent and almost immediate opportunity to reduce creation of carbon emissions with a lifetime benefit of as much as 89% reduction over 30 years. What is true is that there is still a good way and a bad way to use this technology.

Personal Note: I really wish we could develop better ways to store energy created by intermittent sources of energy (I.e., Sun & Wind). I would also love to see solar panels used to power a data center, but unfortunately, they don't make sense economically or space wise. As they could never fit in or around a typical data center and supply enough power to make a difference, and being intermittent it requires that they be redundant to an alternative source of energy.

Owning a hybrid: The Prius is another seemingly awesome concept for sustainability. However, I'm afraid the reality is somewhat different from our generally vain reasons for owning one. While a hybrid car can in fact save you significant dollars on fuel, the overall lifecycle impact of a Prius isn't that much different than any other combustion engine vehicle. It might make the driver feel better, but being sustainable shouldn't be about "feeling better" it should be about "doing better".  I would argue that the appropriate use of a hybrid does improve the equation significantly, but if you're a < 1000 mile a month person who generally drives on the highway, don't buy a hybrid.

Important thoughts from the Sustainable Silicon Valley meeting

I think the single most important thought coming out of our little save the world dinner party was the idea that finding ways to reduce use in our everyday lives and our businesses is the most effective way to have a positive impact. One of my primary focuses in IT has always been on the efficient use of resources. I know it's weird, but efficient use means you're only using what you need when you need it, which by its very nature means your being more sustainable.

I know the above isn't a new thought, but many of us think that the hybrid or Solar panels are the best way for us to reduce our usage.  In some cases the hybrid, Solar panels and other "Sustainable" or "Green" solutions can conserve when implemented and used properly. I believe it's incredibly important for us to consider where the world is today on the tipping scale of climate change risk.  If the scientists are correct and we are nearing the point of no return as far as global warming is concerned, then it would stand to reason that our consumption at the moment is critical to affecting change. If we assume that we can continue to consume at current rates because buying a hybrid or putting up solar panels will save us, I'm afraid we might just be hastening our climate change in the name of saving it.

What's the point?

As I said earlier "being sustainable isn't about feeling better, it's about doing better. If you are really interested in lowering your personal carbon impact on the world, then make your changes in an educated fashion. Don't do it for the sake of vanity. 

  • Reduce use of resources through reduce use, not by masking the use
  • Push for change in the areas that can really provide benefit, not on things like Ethanol
  • Push for legislative change in where/how we provide tax payer funds to support the generation of energy
  • We don't have to believe in human influenced climate change to want a cleaner planet and even if humans aren't the cause of global warming, why take the risk?
  • Moving away from using fossil fuels isn't an if but rather a when, so let's help our politicians to accept that fact and focus on it now, not when it's too late.

We are all using more and more technology every day, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop that. The benefits in efficiency, defense, resource utilization, entertainment, travel and many other areas mean that no matter what any one person or government does, others will exploit it for the advantage. I'm obviously advocating that data centers aren't the evil some like to believe they are but that doesn't mean we are absolved from the need to make them efficient. Also whenever possible we need to power them from clean and or renewable energy sources. In a recent blog I even made the point that building data centers to support high density server environments was being more sustainable than low density designs. The high density design reduces the number of buildings required to support the same amount of work.

 So, the next time you visit or drive by a data center think twice before you assume that data centers are the problem, but please don't get rid of the kid's cleats.

 

References:

Previous blogs on this topic:

Cloud Computing and Data Centers are Killing our Planet

High vs. Low Density Data Centers, Cloud, Cost, PUE & Sustainability

Solar Panels:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/03/solar-panels-ewaste

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/es071763q

Prius or hybrid:  

http://www.thecarconnection.com/tips-article/1010861_prius-versus-hummer-exploding-the-myth

http://www.lifewhile.com/cars/17312400/detail.html

http://www.wpi.edu/Pubs/E-project/Available/E-project-042810-194328/unrestricted/Hybrid_Cars_IQP.pdf

 

Comments

Soccer field vs Video Games

Mark..I love the total impact approach but you should add everyone on the sidelines playing mobile games, texting, emailing, etc while the family heads to the game, the game is going on and after...Great read.  Larry

Re: Soccer Field vs. Video games

Thanks for the comment. It's true the comparisons are endless. While I certainly wouldn't want anyone to stop playing sports, it does put the impact of a data center into better perspective. 

Energy impact of increased health care

This seems like a rather, shall we say, "selective" set of comparative criteria!

For example, what about the greenhouse impact of the increased health care required over the lifetime of the individuals who played 4hrs of video games a day, instead of getting outside and running around (and therefore being healthier and requiring less health care over their lifetimes)?

At somewhere around 17% of GDP (2010 figure) health care costs are significant, and presumably a measurable percentage of that spending is on items (manufacturing, shipping etc.) that have a material greenhouse footprint.

Energy Impact of increased health care - You miss the point

You definitely missed the point of my blog, and that's probably my fault (even though I noted in the last sentence "don't throw away your kid's cleats"). The point of the blog wasn't that we should stop doing outdoor activities in favor of playing computer games, but rather that technology is here to stay and we can complain all we want about the power used, but the alternative would be much worse on our sustainability.