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Clouds ain’t free

The average American now consumes on average, 34 gigabytes of data every day, equal to about 50,000 pages of single-spaced text. The average iphone user consumes an additional 273 megabytes. The data comes from that warm and fuzzy place we like to call “The Cloud”. Clouds are friendly, white and fluffy and float around free in the sky. But, of course, your gigabytes don’t come from clouds. They come through millions of miles of internet pipelines, served to you from colossal conglomerations of computer servers sitting in warehouses all over the world and all those millions of servers use electrical power to store and deliver your data.

Microsoft data center

Apple announced today it’s new facility in California will be “one of the most technologically advanced offices in the world, being totally self -sufficient for power…” Not that that’s not a good thing, but that is a single office for 13,000 of its staff. Most of the power usage for Apple and the other computer and internet giants now comes from massive data centers located around the country.

Apple’s new data center in North Carolina will be as big as 2-3 super-Walmarts. The facility will use 100 megawatts of power, or enough to power 80,000 homes. Cloud computing has these data centers popping up nearly anywhere they can get hefty tax breaks and subsidies for their electricity use. One of the more popular venues for data centers is along the Columbia River corridor in Oregon and Washington. The companies building there include giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Dell, Yahoo, Google, and others.

Google data centers now use about 258 megawatts annually, or enough to power 188,000 homes so, the cost to power these massive facilities is of primary concern to the computer giants. Why the Columbia River? Because of the massive amount of power produced by the dams along the Columbia River. The Facebook facility in Prineville, OR uses 28,000 megawatts and all the other homes and businesses in Crook County use but 30,000 megawatts. But, why are these, mostly desert communities, courting these giants? That’s the 100 megawatt questions. They bring jobs, but not all that many. The typical data center only employs about 40-50 people. I suppose there are the initial construction jobs for the gargantuan facilities as well and that can be important in small communities like The Dalles in Oregon or Quincy, Washington, but that’s not the entire story.

The real reason that the cloud is moving to the Columbia River is because it’s cheap. It’s cheap because of impressive tax breaks and power subsidies lavished on the companies. In the Dalles, Google gets its power for about 4 cents per kilowatt hour, 29 percent less than what other customers pay and 40 percent cheaper than comparable customers pay in the Portland area. Some of the early-adopter companies get their power for as little as 2-cents per kilowatt. Google also gets;

“A tax exemption on $1.3 billion in equipment and buildings. Wasco County values that tax break at about $24.2 million annually, or $71.1 million through fiscal 2010-2011.”

“The local Bend Bulletin estimated that Facebook would have to pay $2.8 million annually in city and county taxes on the property, versus the $110,000 annual fee it worked out with the county.”

The internet titans like to claim that all this cheap power is “Green Power” it’s produced by renewable hydropower. Of course that’s not entirely true. Much of the power for the gigantic server farms comes from coal since most Columbia hydropower is already allocated. The estimates are that “the cloud” currently consumes about 2% of the country’s energy consumption per year and it’s growing rapidly. The global data center market is projected to grow by 50% by 2020 and clearly, they aren’t building more dams on the Columbia River. Most of that growth will be powered by good, old dirty coal, gas and oil. Also, many server farms use huge amounts of water to cool those racks of millions of servers.

I truly believe that these computer behemoths are interested in producing their data products as efficiently and with as little planetary impact as possible, but I also believe that the bottom line is still profit. So, the next time you see your search engine bragging about how “green” they are, or pull up your daughter’s baby photos from Flickr, remember that the shadowy, shapeless, puffy white “cloud” continues to float to you at a high cost to the planet.


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