Cloud computing’ needs real-world energy sources

Barbara Eckstein and Stephen Voyce / Guest Opinion Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 7, 2014

When scholars of technology make statements like, “Our mobile electronic devices and even our desktop computers are extensions of our human bodies,” they get little argument from those who use, let alone those who sell, this equipment.

But our use of electronic devices connects us to other networks — industrial and environmental networks — that a wireless world has made invisible: the generation of electricity to run large servers that store and circulate information, the use of water to cool these servers, and the disposal of electronic objects.

Our chic, clever, 21st-century electronic devices are only as innovative as the means of generating electricity to run them, the use of water to cool them, and the disposal of them when we replace them. If those systems are the same as the ones that heated the homes of Dickens’s 19th-century London and fouled its waterways as well as its streets, just how progressive are our canny devices?

The term “cloud computing” offers up a misleading metaphor. Clouds conjure up an image ethereal, clean and limitless. But, of course, digital networks don’t belong to nature nor does the vast technological apparatus necessary to power the online economy.

Images like the cloud inadvertently conceal the very physical, energy-consuming nature of the Internet. Maybe the cloud is more of a pun than a metaphor. It is we humans who are in a cloud, a fog, about just what fuels and cools these devices at the ends of our arms.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon rely on sprawling data centers. These are factories in the very traditional sense, where rows upon rows of servers are placed tightly together and outfitted with industrial scale cooling systems.

Tens of thousands of these factories run 24/7, consuming energy on a sublime scale. Between 2000-2005, the energy needed to power the internet doubled. Between 2005-2010, it jumped another 75 percent.

Estimates place global output at 30 billion watts of electricity per annum (approximately 30 nuclear power plants or the equivalent generation from coal). What is more, for many data centers in the U.S., diesel-burning generators are used to guard against potential power failure. New York Times writer James Glanz found that many of California’s data centers rank among the state’s worst toxic air polluters.

In Iowa, taxpayers have provided over $76 million since 2007 to Google, Microsoft and Facebook for the building of large data centers in this state — with the promise of creating 238 jobs. Data center supporters here have used the metaphor “server farms” to describe these data centers to Iowans.

Speaking clearly, Google’s vice president for technical operations Lloyd Taylor, told Arizona legal scholar Robert Glennon that the company’s server farms are “heavy manufacturing facilities” that need to be sited in industrial parks with ready access to water and electricity.

The demand for electricity is something in excess of 2 megawatts per 10,000 square feet of server farm. (This in a state still dependent upon burning coal to generate the majority of its electricity.)

The demand for water is huge but none of the major internet providers would give Glennon numbers on how huge. He does report that one server farm in Virginia pumps 13.5 million gallons a day for four immense “chillers.” And what is the state of this water after it has been used in this way? we wondered. Local environmental engineers told us, “It is pretty well known that cooling water returned to surface waters at even slightly higher temperature have adverse impacts on ecosystems.”

The hopeful news in Iowa is that Google has agreed to purchase 407 megawatts of wind energy from MidAmerican to fully power its data center. Facebook entered into an agreement to purchase wind power for their data center from MidAmerican’s most recently announced wind energy project. Facebook also promises that they will use an “innovative outdoor-air cooling system” and build their facility to gold LEED standards.

But it would be a mistake to use these promises as an excuse to remain in the cloud about the full cost to climate change and water quality, and so to all of us, of ever-increasing electronic use and the building of new server farms.

It would also be a mistake to remain in a cloud about the worldwide impact of electronic waste. A 2012 World Bank report estimates an increase in solid waste from 1.3 billion to 2.2 billion tons in the near future, while the annual cost of waste management exceeds $200 billion.

“E-waste” accounts for a significant portion of this increase. Virtual networks require physical screens, cables, servers, phones, tablets, routers, batteries. These objects consist of glass, metal, plastics, and rare earth metals, much of which is hazardous, toxic and difficult to recycle. Some estimates suggest that the US gets rid of approximately 30,000 computers per day, while Europe discards millions of cellular phones every year.

To date, the U.S. has refused to sign the Basel Convention prohibiting countries to outsource e-waste to the developing world. Much of it ends up in places many in the West have not heard of: Agbogbloshie, Ghana; Bengaluru, India; and Guiyu, China, where workers scavenge junk computers for precious metals, plastics, and wiring. The heating process used to melt many of these components releases harmful toxins into the atmosphere, causing serious health and environmental issues.

The answer to every problem — or just passing boredom — can’t be in “the cloud.” Wi-fi, it tuns out, is actually thousands, millions, of miles of wire.

We are connected, for sure!

Barbara Eckstein’s and Stephen Voyce’s work in Iowa City entangles them in these wires.

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