Academic journal article American University Law Review

Data Transmission and Energy Efficient Internet Data Centers

Academic journal article American University Law Review

Data Transmission and Energy Efficient Internet Data Centers

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the past few decades, a modern awareness of human impact on the Earth has inspired American society and businesses to adopt more environmentally friendly and energy efficient technologies. As a complement to this awareness, people now seem to notice when industries affect or harm the environment. When people think of environmental dangers, they often identify air pollution, toxic waste, or even climate change as the major problems.1 But, aside from these obvious environmental hazards, there are seemingly clean or innocent industries that actually have a net-negative impact on the environment. Ironically, one such innocent industry hidden in plain sight was also a harbinger of the green movement: the internet. While the internet encourages the reduction of paper usage through electronic file storage and email communication, the internet is not as clean as it seems.

The foundation of the internet, and what many people may not realize, is that everything a person does online requires physical storage space somewhere.2 Whether a person clicks on a link, performs a search, or downloads a movie, that person's computer must access the data associated with these actions by retrieving the information from a data server. Every website and internet company3 either owns its own data server or rents space from a third-party, multi-tenant data server, and each byte of data that goes into making the website visible needs physical storage on a server. What makes this trail of connection between websites and servers environmentally significant is that facilities, known as data centers, house data servers by the thousands and require constant electricity. The servers they house must be readily accessible to internet users at any time; in other words, they are always on.

The energy usage of data centers is staggering, with estimates placing energy consumption around ninety-one billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually-the equivalent of thirty-four coal-fired power plants, or enough energy to power all the homes in New York city for two years.4 This level of electricity consumption is not only costly to the data center business, with projected costs of electricity bills for U.S. companies reaching $13 billion in 2020, but it also threatens our health and safety by incidentally emitting millions of metric tons of carbon annually.5 In response to this trend, there is a growing body of literature criticizing the practices of internet data centers and their overwhelming impact on energy consumption, the environment, and climate change.6 Though some internet companies have taken steps to reduce their environmental footprint by relying on renewable energy sources or implementing more efficient technologies, the practice is hardly ubiquitous.7 Coordination between businesses and the government is necessary to create either incentives or penalties that help reduce the energy footprint of internet company data centers.

Reducing the energy consumption of internet data centers is also an easy way for the United States to meet international climate change goals. With recent shifts in the federal government's policies regarding energy production in the United States,8 improving data center energy efficiency may help the United States meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement.9 While the United States has announced its intention to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the withdrawal process takes at least three years and many states and localities have stated they will continue to try to meet its goals.10 Regardless of the political disparities, the federal government's shift in energy policy makes it difficult for the United States and/or its localities to meet the first round of commitments under the Agreement.11 Reducing data center energy consumption, while not the most significant step a country could take, will help the United States reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions, an important step in meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. …

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