One of the advantages of cloud-based technology is that by default, it saves paper. For example, transferring money electronically between bank accounts has by and large obviated the need for writing checks, and these days, more people are sending e-mails than writing letters.
At first blush, this theoretically seems like good news. Through the years there have been many ecological concerns that have arisen as a result of paper production. Across the world, the consumption of paper products has risen 400% in the past forty years, and 35% of harvested trees are used for paper manufacture. During the manufacturing process, nitrogen and sulfur dioxides, two chemicals that enable the creation of acid rain; and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that precipitates climate change are released into the atmosphere. Paper production also can be a cause of water pollution. Because waste water discharges from a pulp and paper mill contain organic carbon-based matter, such nutrients contained within this matter as nitrogen and phosphorous can result in an overgrowth of algae in lakes and rivers, which in turn disrupts these ecosystems as the oxygen supply in the water is depleted, which is lethal to certain fish and other animals. Worse yet, the residues from the use of chlorine to bleach the paper can result in chlorinate organic compounds tainting the water supply. This is particularly hazardous to human health because these compounds not only can cause developmental, immune and hormonal problems, but are also carcinogenic.
However, not a lot of people take into account the type of materials used to manufacture computer hardware, nor do they consider the renewability of these resources, nor do they consider the amount of energy required to power these devices, nor do they consider how this energy is produced nor the impact of its expenditure. In fact, computers present a rather dire twofold ecological problem, what with highly toxic component materials being an integral part of their construction, and as these machines are used (especially on a large scale such as in the offices of a cloud-based startup), they often use an enormous amount of energy.
A tremendous portion of this energy is used by data centers, facilities that feature rows and rows of servers spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet. In addition to the electricity pouring into the machinery, energy is also spent through cooling the machines to prevent the overheating and subsequent melting of ethernet sockets and other crucial components, which would damage the equipment and result in the loss of information from members’ accounts. In an article in the New York Times published on September 22, 2012, Facebook engineering chief Jeff Rothschild recalled an incident in early 2006 where he needed to buy scads upon scads of fans because the machines at Facebook’s data center (which in those days occupied a 40-by-60 foot rental space) were at a critically high temperature. “We cleaned out all of the Walgreen’s [stores] in the area to blast cool air at the equipment and prevent the Web site from going down,” muses Rothschild. In 2006, Facebook only had about 10 million users. These days, Facebook has accumulated 100 times as many users, and as such requires more and larger data centers.
Worldwide, these facilities use about 30 billion watts of electricity to create more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes of information daily, with the United States accounting for approximately one quarter to one third of this figure. Because they are operated at maximum capacity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 90% of the power they get from the electric company is wasted. “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town,” remarks Peter Gross, who assisted in the design of hundreds of these digital warehouses.
To offset this and keep websites running in the event of a power outage, diesel-powered generators are used, and the exhaust from the generators pollutes the air. In addition to these generators, thousands of toxic lead-acid batteries are used to power the servers in case of even the briefest power failure.
In Silicon Valley, a hub of the technology industry where companies like Google, LinkedIn, Apple, Ebay, Electronic Arts and Facebook are headquartered, many data centers appear on the state government’s Toxic Air Contaminant Inventory, a list of the biggest stationary air polluters in California. At least a dozen other data centers have been cited for violating clean air laws in Virginia and Illinois, and multinational e-commerce concern Amazon.Com racked up twenty-four clean air violations in northern Virgina over a three-year period.
A study of energy use conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Company concluded that on average, only six to twelve per cent of the power used by the data centers is used to perform computations. Most of the power is used to keep the servers idle and running in the event of a surge in activity that could cause the machinery to slow down or crash.
There are many solutions to mitigate this dilemma. A study conducted in April 2005 at the University of Guelph in Canada advocates green procurement policies, which entail reducing the use of toxic chemicals (i.e. lead-free soldering) and reducing waste through selling or donating old computer systems while upgrading existing ones. Indeed, this is viable, as schools and small businesses create an appreciable demand for secondhand computers. In recent years, a glut of technology companies such as Facebook and Google have redesigned their hardware, software and cooling systems to be more energy efficient. However, it may be a while before these companies operate at optimum energy efficiency, since Google’s data centers use 300 million watts and Facebook’s data centers consume about 60 million watts.