With The Cloud Ever More Energy Hungry, Tech Giants Want To Tap Straight Into Renewables

Jun 9, 2016

The cloud, where you upload photos and stream video, is actually real, physical infrastructure housed in data centers across the country, like Green House Data's server farm in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

"This is the cloud," said Art Salazar, the company's director of operations, waving at rows and rows of glass and metal cabinets. "You're standing right in front of the cloud."

Feeding those hungry computers are big, black power lines, snaking along the ceiling. Like most data centers, electricity is the company's biggest expense, which is why Green House Data is obsessed with energy efficiency – and why companies want to get green power right at the source.

Despite a rigorous dust control protocol and an air sampling program designed to catch any undetected inefficiency, Green House Data still consumes a huge amount of electricity. 15 million kilowatt hours were consumed in 2015, enough to power more than a thousand average homes.

Overall, electricity consumption for data centers as an industry is considerably higher. In 2013, statistics compiled by Inside Energy show data centers used 2 percent of all U.S. power — triple what they consumed in 2000.

"The electrical resources of the planet are finite, but our need for data seems to be infinite," said Wendy Fox, Green House Data's communications director.

For that reason, Fox said, as the sector grows, it has a responsibility to do it sustainably.

"We want to influence policy, we want to influence the availability of these resources."

That means Green House Date purchases renewable energy credits to offset the mostly coal-fired power the company uses from Wyoming's grid. Similar credits are how many tech companies have managed their carbon footprints in the past, but now that's changing. Larger companies – like Microsoft – are now going right to the source for renewable power.

"Direct sourcing is important to us because our goal is really the transformation of the electric grid," said Brian Janous, the director of energy strategy for Microsoft, the PC giant and owner of Wyoming's largest data center.

How is Microsoft planning to achieve the transformation of the electric grid? Not alone. Microsoft is teaming up with other companies, including Facebook and Google, to push for easier access to renewable energy. Their leverage comes from the fact that they are becoming larger and larger energy consumers.

"We're going back to our utility every year and saying, 'We're going consume more power next year than we did the year before,'" Janous said.

That puts data companies in a unique negotiating position with utilities, and with the states that want to attract their business.

"We want to influence policy, we want to influence the availability of these resources," Janous said.

It appears to be working. In Nevada, a data company was able to convince the utility, NV Energy, to build new renewable capacity for its project. In Virginia, Microsoft has negotiated an agreement for a new solar farm.

In Wyoming, Microsoft has already invested around a billion dollars in data centers. Shawn Reese, the director of the Wyoming Business Council, hopes that's just the beginning.

"We want Microsoft to continue to grow here and, frankly, we want their competitors here in the State of Wyoming as well," he said.

Wyoming has great renewable energy potential, but very little of it has been tapped. Local law makes it difficult for companies to directly invest in renewable energy, and the state's utilities don't offer renewable tariffs for companies.

"The markets are changing, the technologies are changing and the state's got to keep up with those," said Reese.

Or risk losing out on business from one of the nation's fastest growing sectors.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.