Data centers are among the highest consumers of electric power. Studies have shown that data center energy consumption continues to increase annually, with two identifiable trends.
The first trend is that mainstream legacy corporate data centers continue to be major consumers of power, despite many organizations migrating systems and hardware to cloud environments. But, while average use is increasing steadily, it's doing so at a lower rate than perhaps 20 years ago when cloud data centers were emerging as a major alternative to legacy facilities.
The other trend is that, while large cloud data centers, often called hyperscale centers, are steadily increasing their power usage, they're balancing that increase by investing in green initiatives, such as energy-efficient equipment. They're also revamping supporting systems such as HVAC, security and lighting.
Estimates on global data center energy usage
The following paragraphs provide estimates and forecasts of data center energy consumption in the U.S. The data reinforces the importance of using energy-efficient equipment in data centers.
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The "United States Data Center Energy Usage Report," published in June 2016 and supported by the Federal Energy Management Program of the U.S. Department of Energy, examined data center power usage back to the year 2000, presented analyses of how power usage has increased and offered forecasts of power usage in the early part of the current decade.
In 2014, data centers in the U.S. consumed an estimated 70 billion kWh [kilowatt-hours], representing about 1.8% of total U.S. electricity consumption. Current study results show data center electricity consumption increased by about 4% from 2010-2014, a large shift from the 24% percent increase estimated from 2005-2010 and the nearly 90% increase estimated from 2000-2005. Energy use is expected to continue slightly increasing in the near future, increasing 4% from 2014-2020, the same rate as the past five years. Based on current trend estimates, U.S. data centers are projected to consume approximately 73 billion kWh in 2020.
A more recent analysis of data center energy consumption patterns was published by Statista Inc. on Sept. 30, 2021. The report, "Global Data Centers Energy Demand by Type 2015-2021" by Nane Sönnichsen, found the following:
Traditional data centers globally have decreased their energy demand, from around 97.6 terawatt-hours in 2015, to some 50 terawatt-hours in 2019, and a forecast indicated that this figure will reach nearly 33 terawatt-hours by 2021. On the other hand, hyperscale data centers have doubled their energy demand in the same period of time.
The report also provided a year-by-year forecast of data center usage in three categories: traditional data centers, non-hyperscale cloud data centers and hyperscale cloud data centers.
Traditional data center operators are typically concerned with maximizing output and performance, often ignoring the power implications. For large organizations, the need for increased computing power often resulted in building additional data centers, significantly increasing energy consumption. The earlier years shown in the table above reflect this trend.
However, the availability of significant computing resources without the need for floor space fueled the trend of shutting down legacy data centers and moving operations to the cloud.
Non-hyperscale cloud data centers demonstrate their use of energy-efficient equipment and environmental systems by keeping their energy consumption steady. Large, hyperscale cloud data centers have steadily increased their energy usage and effectively managed it for the same reasons.
Interestingly, if the columns in the table above are added across, the total energy demand in 2015 is 190.7 terawatt-hours, while the estimate demand for 2021 is 190.8 TWh. Again, this reflects how energy-efficient equipment and green data center operations keep energy costs under control.
Why do data centers consume so much energy?
There are many types of equipment in a typical data center, virtually all of which need electricity. This figure depicts the various kinds of energy-consuming devices, not to mention overhead lighting, found in a typical data center.
Older servers and network communications equipment consume more power than newer and more energy-efficient systems. Each of the above elements can be updated with newer systems that reduce electricity demand.
How is data center energy consumption being addressed?
Organizations regularly pursue numerous activities to improve data center energy efficiency and to reduce energy demand. These initiatives are generally bundled under the term green data centers. The following are green data center activities, with a focus on cloud data centers:
- Energy efficiency. Energy-efficiency improvements used by cloud vendors include using eco-friendly power sources, reducing carbon footprints, contracting with power-generation utilities to supply green energy, regularly measuring power usage effectiveness and having documented plans and time frames to become carbon-negative and remove all carbon from the environment.
- Use of renewable energy. Wind and solar energy are among the most frequently used sources of renewable energy by cloud vendors. Renewable energy sources can be wholly owned and managed by the cloud vendor or obtained through contracts with renewable energy providers.
- Eco-friendly data center buildings. Design and construction of current and future cloud data center buildings typically conform to current design specifications for energy-efficient building construction.
- Data center site selection. Sites should be selected to minimize risk from factors such as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Cloud vendors access low-cost energy and reliable telecommunications infrastructure sources to maximize energy efficiency.
- HVAC management. Energy-efficient cooling systems, as part of the typical HVAC suite of systems, are carefully managed for energy consumption. Temperature, humidity and heat load -- a byproduct of energy consumption -- are monitored and managed to optimize operational conditions. Additional issues to consider include the local climate and compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
- Protection from fire and water damage. Water detection devices are located at strategic places in data centers to notify operators of water leaks or flooding. Fire and smoke detection devices and their associated suppression -- such as FM-200 discharge and wet-pipe and dry-pipe water systems -- assets are located throughout the data center and its adjoining work areas, conference rooms, food service areas and utility rooms.
- Infrastructure energy efficiency. Cloud data centers typically use commercial power and telecommunications resources from utility companies. Cloud vendors often have policies and procedures to assess the eco-friendliness of utility providers.
Data center power consumption going forward
Data center power consumption will continue to increase in the coming years. This trend is fueled in part by the continued popularity of cloud data centers, which are among the largest consumers of energy today. Managing energy consumption will be a major ongoing activity for data centers using technology such as energy-efficient HVAC systems, equipment racks with cooling systems, and energy-efficient doors and windows.
The U.S. data center industry isn't the only advocate of green data centers. One example of a major initiative is the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, which aims to have data centers in Europe climate-neutral by 2030. The pact also supports the European Green Deal, which has the goal of making Europe climate-neutral by 2050.