Clouds of Smoke – And the TrAIL Line – And the Next Project Mountaineer

The New York Times has started a series on the vast network of server farms that are the physical infrastructure of the Internet, especially the relatively new phenomenon of “cloud computing” which requires massive amounts of centralized storage.  Like our centralized electricity grid, this is turning out be be a very wasteful and insecure system.

The Times series began yesterday with an article titled “Power, Pollution and the Internet.”  Here’s the gist of the article:

A yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.

Most data centers, by design, consume vast amounts of energy in an incongruously wasteful manner, interviews and documents show. Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.

To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show. In Silicon Valley, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a roster of the area’s top stationary diesel polluters.

That’s it.  So you can pull a picture of your dog off the “cloud” onto your iphone at 2:00 a.m., that’s what is happening.  The “cloud” in cloud computing refers to the clouds of coal and diesel smoke that companies like Apple, Amazon and Google pour into the air to pursue their business models and keep their customers happy.

With no sense that data is physical or that storing it uses up space and energy, those consumers have developed the habit of sending huge data files back and forth, like videos and mass e-mails with photo attachments. Even the seemingly mundane actions like running an app to find an Italian restaurant in Manhattan or a taxi in Dallas requires servers to be turned on and ready to process the information instantaneously.

The complexity of a basic transaction is a mystery to most users: Sending a message with photographs to a neighbor could involve a trip through hundreds or thousands of miles of Internet conduits and multiple data centers before the e-mail arrives across the street.

“If you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right,” said Bruce Taylor, vice president of the Uptime Institute, a professional organization for companies that use data centers.

To support all that digital activity, there are now more than three million data centers of widely varying sizes worldwide, according to figures from the International Data Corporation.

And this eye opener:

Servers are not the only components in data centers that consume energy. Industrial cooling systems, circuitry to keep backup batteries charged and simple dissipation in the extensive wiring all consume their share.

In a typical data center, those losses combined with low utilization can mean that the energy wasted is as much as 30 times the amount of electricity used to carry out the basic purpose of the data center.

A culture has developed in business, among consumers and in the data industry that rewards waste:

“You look at it and say, ‘How in the world can you run a business like that,’ ” Mr. Symanski said. The answer is often the same, he said: “They don’t get a bonus for saving on the electric bill. They get a bonus for having the data center available 99.999 percent of the time.”

Finally, we have the clincher.  An unusually large number of server farms operate in northern East Virginia.  Right near where the recently constructed TrAIL line and the now-failed PATH line ended.  TrAIL pops up in the article, although the reporter does not name the line.  Then, up pops PJM’s Steve Herling.  Here it is:

Last year in the Northeast, a $1 billion feeder line for the national power grid [that’s TrAIL] went into operation, snaking roughly 215 miles from southwestern Pennsylvania, through the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia and terminating in Loudon County, Va.

The work was financed by millions of ordinary ratepayers. Steven R. Herling, a senior official at PJM Interconnection, a regional authority for the grid, said the need to feed the mushrooming data centers in Northern Virginia was the “tipping point” for the project in an otherwise down economy.

Data centers in the area now consume almost 500 million watts of electricity, said Jim Norvelle, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, the major utility there. Dominion estimates that the load could rise to more than a billion watts over the next five years.

Data centers are among utilities’ most prized customers. Many utilities around the country recruit the facilities for their almost unvarying round-the-clock loads. Large, steady consumption is profitable for utilities because it allows them to plan their own power purchases in advance and market their services at night, when demand by other customers plummets.

So Herling says it.  TrAIL (and probably PATH) wasn’t about “brownouts and blackouts” for average consumers.  It was about power companies creating unneeded infrastructure for their phenomenally wasteful, but “prized,” industrial server farms.  Not only do these server farms run by Google and Amazon get big tax breaks from state and local governments, average rate payers directly subsidize the power lines they need through FERC’s “postage stamp” cost recovery process.

Now we see the shape of the next Project Mountaineer.  It won’t be driven by the over-supply of coal fired electricity.  It will be driven by the need for huge server farms to waste 30 times the electricity that they really need.

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