by Dr. Sarah Payne, DLINQ Instructional Designer

Like many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to rely on the internet more than usual. Particularly during the early months of 2020, my work, entertainment, and social connections mainly happened in virtual spaces.  As quarantine and lockdowns curbed transportation, global carbon emissions fell by 6.4%. Although I drove and flew less (or not at all) my Zoom calls and Netflix binges still contributed to my overall carbon footprint. In the first post of this Digital Detox, Dr. Amy Collier writes “The Internet is not ethereal, even though we use such language as ‘in the cloud’ that obscures the very physical nature of the web, and its impacts on the environment.” Our online actions are powered by data centers, hulking structures that require vast amounts of energy, which is often non-renewable. Yet data centers and their environmental impact are not inevitable. Mindfulness about our own online energy usage and more importantly, collective action at the local level, can help limit the environmental impacts of data centers.

To wrap my head around what a data center actually is, I found it helpful to consider what they typically contain: routers, switches, firewalls, storage systems, servers, and application-delivery controllers. To support the hardware and software, data centers also need power subsystems, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), ventilation, cooling systems, fire suppression, backup generators, and connections to external networks. As of 2020, there were roughly 600 ‘hyperscale” data centers globally, most of them operated by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. The U.S. also has at least 1800 colocation data centers, which are smaller but often more energy inefficient structures.

If you’ve ever left your phone in a hot car for too long, you know that technology doesn’t do well in the heat. The same applies to data centers: they must be kept cool in order to function. One approach has been to build data centers in locations with colder climates, reducing the cooling needs. Nordic countries, for example, have seen an influx of data centers because their colder climates ostensibly reduce energy costs. Yet as Iceland and Denmark have seen, data centers still require vast amounts of electricity. As some critics note, this electricity should be used to support greener initiatives such as electric cars rather than being monopolized by tech corporations.

Despite the cooling demands, most data center locations are based on proximity to customers and infrastructure, land cost, tax incentives, and low-cost electricity according to researchers from Virginia Tech. As a result, roughly one fifth of data centers in the U.S. rely on moderately to highly stressed watersheds, mostly in Western regions. The average data center uses 3-5 million gallons of water per day. That’s equivalent to a city of 30-50k people. Due to climate change, droughts, and fires, water is becoming an increasingly precious resource. Yet according to Newsha Ajami, director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, “we often overlook the communities impacted [by data centers]. If it was a wealthy community, maybe they wouldn’t allow the data centers to be built in their backyard.” Data centers contribute to climate change, but those effects aren’t felt equally by everyone. Instead, marginalized communities who already endure a disproportionate amount of climate change disruption are asked to shoulder even more of the burden.

Some cities have been able to push back against data centers. In 2015 the city of Chandler, Arizona passed an ordinance restricting new water intensive businesses from developing unless they aligned with the city’s economic development plan. The ordinance effectively prohibits businesses such as data centers, which are resource intensive and create few jobs. There have been no new data center developments since the ordinance was passed. In 2018, the town of Plattsburgh, New York placed an 18 month moratorium on new Bitcoin mines.  The city has access to cheap electricity via a hydroelectric dam, yet after Bitcoin companies set up shop in Plattsburgh, electric bills spiked. The Bitcoin operations caused the city to exceed its power allotment and the overage was distributed among all residents and businesses, most of whom were not affiliated with bitcoin mining. Though the moratorium has now lapsed, the city has adopted new sustainability policies aimed at curtailing Bitcoin energy expenditure.

Because of local resistance to data centers, some tech corporations have taken to shrouding their dealings in secrecy. For instance, Facebook recently negotiated the purchase of fertile farming land in Holland to build a new hyperscale data center. Yet the residents of Zeewolde didn’t realize they invited Facebook into their backyards until it was too late. Facebook negotiated the deal under the name “Project Tulip” and only revealed their identity right before the vote to sell the land, after two years of negotiations. As Aman Sethi writes, “Facebook’s demand for secrecy around its data center in the Netherlands is the latest example of Big Tech’s aggressive but covert strategy to squeeze concessions from local governments. The veil of secrecy minimizes public scrutiny and backlash, often until it is too late.” Google and Microsoft have used similar tactics to build data centers in Texas and Iowa respectively. Because of public backlash, the sale of the land in Zeewolde has been halted and Facebook must now meet mandatory sustainability requirements in order to purchase the land.

While there have been strides in making data centers more energy efficient and sustainable, we should be wary of companies who tout their green credentials. In order to burnish their brand, many tech giants have built data centers near renewable energy sources. However, in 2017 Microsoft purchased all of the electricity created by a wind farm near one of its data centers. While ostensibly renewable, Microsoft’s actions prevented the rest of the town from using the wind-powered electricity. The wind farm Microsoft dominated produced enough electricity to power 370k homes.

Requiring data centers to be more energy efficient is important, but only one potential solution. There are individual actions you can take to reduce your carbon emissions from online activity. Limiting audio and video streaming, unsubscribing from emails you no longer want to receive, and powering down or unplugging devices when not in use can all reduce your online carbon footprint. It’s also important to educate our students about the impacts of big data. As Ingrid Burrington writes, “ If we want better, more sustainable technologies to be part of the future, these questions need to become part of the curricula taught to the people who will build them.” And as the towns of Chandler, Arizona, Plattsburgh, New York, and Zeewolde, Holland demonstrate, data companies are particularly responsive to public pressure and backlash. Becoming involved in local politics and advocating for environmentally sound policies that privilege the voices of the most marginalized community members is one of the most important steps you can take.

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