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Lux Research Data Centers electricity use

Google, Amazon Underestimate Data Centers’ Carbon Footprints

Lux Research Data Centers electricity useGoogle and Amazon are among the companies using an obsolete tool to calculate their data center emissions from the electricity they purchase from the power grid, according to Lux Research.

The research firm has developed a new analytical tool that finds data centers underestimate coal usage by 30 percent or more, and thus have much higher emissions than they report.

The companies currently use the EPA’s Emissions & Generation Resource Integrated Database (eGRID) to estimate their emissions. However, eGRID divides the US electricity grid into just 24 broad regions, and is updated only infrequently — the most recent information available is from 2012, Lux Research says.

Lux Research’s grid analysis improves the accuracy of carbon reporting by a factor of 80, says Ory Zik, Lux Research vice president of analytics and the team leader of Lux’s energy benchmarking. “For example, we found that Google underestimates its dependence on coal in four out of seven data centers, in particular at its Berkeley County, South Carolina location,” he says.

The new Lux Grid Network Analysis (GNA) divides the grid into 134 regions, instead of 24, providing more granular insight, and makes use of US Energy Information Administration data that is updated monthly. Applying the Lux GNA to US-based data centers shows where operators are coming up short in their sustainability reporting:

  • Google misses the mark in four out of its seven data centers. Google uses eGRID to estimate its electricity emissions, but four of Google’s seven major US data centers rely more on coal than the data reported by eGRID implies. As a result, Google’s emissions are likely larger than they estimated by 42,000 MT CO2e per year, Lux Research says.
  • Amazon estimates are off in more than 20 centers. Amazon is less transparent about how it calculates its emissions, but its 23 Virginia-based cloud services data centers use about 43 percent electricity from coal — not 35 percent as estimated using eGRID. This difference amounts to 85,000 MT CO2e per year more.

In a free white paper, How Dirty Is Your Cloud?, Lux Research says only about 12 percent of data centers’ carbon emissions are within the four walls of their facility; the rest of the losses (and emissions) come from resources procured from elsewhere.

In addition to using massive amounts of energy — Lux Research says data centers use more than 90 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually — data centers guzzle huge amounts of water to support their cooling needs.

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3 thoughts on “Google, Amazon Underestimate Data Centers’ Carbon Footprints

  1. We need to be paying attention to ALL IT emissions. We’re in an “always on” state which means perpetual consumption. The best place to start would be for these huge data centers to switch to 100% renewables, and follow Facebook’s lead.

  2. Google’s scope 1 and 2 emissions exceeded 1.5 million MT CO2e in 2014, so in all fairness, a 42,000 MT error is less than 3%. Even with the miscalculation, Google’s target aligns with science-based reduction recommendations. It’s important to present data in the appropriate context.

  3. Just because you can subdivide the US into 134 regions doesn’t mean that you it makes the most sense to do so. There are three physical grids in the continental US: East, West, and Texas. They exchange very little power. Any electron uploaded to any of these grids becomes physically indistinguishable from any other electron on that same grid. The eGRID subregions are based on the attempt to minimize power exchange between them to create virtual (not physical) subgrids. If you really want to know the emissions attributable to the consumption of one kWh of electricity, you should take eGRID data and add information on power trade and also the GHG of fuel production (scope 3), both of which neither EPA nor EIA do. So while this new tool calculates different numbers, the claim that it actually provides better or “truer” numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Even the DoE and the WRI use eGRID data for electricity emission factors, so let’s see what they have to say about this.

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