Calculating carbon emissions in the data center

While data center carbon measurement is in its infancy and lacks hard standards, it still may benefit IT admins to know basic methods for calculating carbon emissions as carbon legislation begins impacting data centers.

A data center manager's job includes a variety of responsibilities, but until now, calculating carbon emissions was not one of them. However, a convergence of public- and private-sector forces is creating an environment where measuring carbon emissions may very well become part of the data center manager's job description.

The push toward carbon measurement and regulation has come from Europe, the U.S. government and industry. Though America is still making the case for carbon regulation, Europe has already committed to carbon emissions reduction and the movement has gained strength on a global scale. Public support for environmental reform has grown in recent years, and the federal government under the Obama administration is working to instate some type of carbon legislation. Federal carbon legislation could potentially involve applying a carbon-measurement metric and taxing it to decrease emissions.

Utilities consultant Mark Bramfitt, a former principal program manager at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, said that on the federal level, carbon regulation would likely focus on utilities, not data centers. He said the main concern for data centers would be higher electrical rates resulting from carbon taxes paid by the utilities or the implementation of a carbon cap-and-trade system. Utilities would in turn pass on the costs to data centers.

However, a potential carbon tax is contingent on the type of power generation used by individual utilities, Bramfitt said. For example, utilities that rely on coal burning emit more carbon than utilities with mixed power, such as the California plants that offset coal power generation with hydroelectric power.

Neil Rasmussen, Chief Innovation Officer at APC, said that if federal carbon legislation has an impact on data center energy costs, it could put additional pressure on improving return on investment and improving electrical efficiency.

Measuring carbon dioxide emissions
Calculating carbon emissions may seem challenging, but experts say it can be relatively straightforward, and that it's best to start small.

According to Bramfitt, data center managers can approach carbon measurement by reading their electrical meters and multiplying that number by their local carbon factor, which the data center's utility can supply. Government agency websites, such as those from the Environmental Protection Agency or Energy Information Association, can also point to carbon factor information from local utilities.

Some end users are not concerned about measuring carbon usage. Phil Reese, Stanford University's faculty and research computing strategist and member of Data Center Pulse's Board of Directors, said data center managers have been receptive to applying measurements such as power usage effectiveness and other metrics that make sense. "Something like carbon, there are certainly dollars involved, so there is motivation from that perspective to pay attention to it," he said.

Nuances of calculating carbon emissions
While experts recommend a simple strategy for calculating carbon emissions, there are nuances to take into account for the most accurate measurement. One consideration is a facility's specific requirements -- for example, a data center that is housed in an industrial office park. For that particular situation, Bramfitt recommended setting up an electrical meter inside the data center.

Another potential issue could be over-measurement, Bramfitt said. The power-generation sources that utilities use vary throughout the course of a day. "Data centers have high load factors; they use power around the clock," Bramfitt said. "If you use an average carbon-per-kilowatt-hour number, you might be overstating your impact. For utilities that have a mixed power generation, that off-peak power in the middle of the night is probably from hydroelectric or other resources, and that has zero carbon. This would not be true for 100% coal or 100% hydro, but very few customers get that power delivered to them."

Bramfitt said that utilities do not provide the time-of-use carbon information. "They are just giving you an average, and I think that does a disservice to high-load-factor customers like data centers."

Bramfitt said that pending federal carbon legislation shouldn't create additional challenges for data center managers aside from cost. "I don't think there is any legislation coming down the pike saying, 'Mr. data center manager, you have to reduce your carbon footprint.' I see most of the regulatory activity going after the source of emissions, which is really the power plants," he said.

Nonetheless, data center managers might reap some rewards for carbon measurement and decreasing the electrical load. "Let's say I improve the efficiency of the data center by 20%. There's a pretty good chance I can put 20% more IT equipment in that data center," Rasmussen said. And adding capacity to an existing facility is significant. "To a lot of our customers, this becomes a lot more important to them than energy savings."

Data center carbon measurement is in its infancy and lacks true standards or federal legislation at the present time. In the absence of that guidance, data center managers are on their own. However, no one is demanding that data centers measure carbon with any specificity. The idea is that as large consumers of electrical energy, data centers will eventually need to understand their energy usage; and separately, as federal or state governments develop legislation to reduce our society's collective carbon footprint, utilities will pass along costs to data centers.

Therefore, it might behoove managers to become early adopters of carbon measurement and understanding a data center's energy usage. Taking measurement and carbon emission reduction seriously gives them a chance to act as environmental stewards and to be in front of costs -- which could help data center managers in the long term.

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