The Environmental Impact of Data Centers

Data centers centralize many organizations’ IT equipment and operations and store, process and manage data and applications. They’ve become essential for business operations, even as the demand for data center services keeps increasing worldwide.

The problem? These data centers also consume significant energy —between 1% and 1.5% of the world’s total usage, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). As global organizations like the United Nations and International Energy Agency call for lower emissions and energy conservation, data centers can address climate change by reducing their own environmental impact.

While demand for these data centers keeps increasing, it’s vital for leaders to examine how they affect the environment — and the issues they face.

Energy usage

Data centers require tremendous electricity and energy to power networking and storage equipment, servers and the infrastructure supporting these tools. Tens of thousands of IT devices and servers lie in data centers. Everything needs electricity to process data-heavy workloads. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, data centers need nearly 50 times more energy per floor space than typical commercial office buildings.

According to the IEA, global data center electricity usage has risen 10% to 60% between 2015 and 2021, up to 220 to 320 Terawatt hours. While those numbers sound high, contrast the demand with the 160% increase in data center workloads in the same period. The power requirement is high, but improved energy efficiency and power usage effectiveness (PUE) have mitigated some of the adverse environmental effects resulting from higher demand.

Aligning with a Net Zero Emissions policy by 2050 requires data centers and data transmission networks to cut their emissions in half by 2030 — a challenge that’s not insurmountable.

Water consumption

Data centers rely on cooling systems to keep servers from overheating. Cooling towers, chillers, piping and air conditioning work together to maintain ideal temperatures. While some equipment uses evaporative cooling to remove heat from inside the centers and release it outside. Humidifiers also help maintain appropriate humidity levels — but this process requires electricity to vaporize water.

An average Google data center uses 450,000 gallons of water each day (the same amount used to irrigate 17 acres of lawn simultaneously) — or 3.3 billion gallons of water in the U.S. annually (and more internationally). Smaller data centers use between 10,000 and 15,000 gallons each day versus hyperscale data centers, which use millions daily.

This significant water requirement puts additional pressure on the communities where data centers are built. Many are located in drought-stricken areas, including the Midwest. Some also get water from potable sources, although some data centers use non-potable water where possible. 

Google’s data centers, for example, use non-potable water at 25% of their campuses. Other alternatives to freshwater include reclaimed and recycled water — especially important in water-scarce, drought-prone locations.

Electronic and toxic waste

Defined by the UN as any electronic equipment disposed of incorrectly, electronic or e-waste can release toxic substances and affect resource consumption. 

E-waste is increasing exponentially and becoming one of the world’s biggest waste problems. The world generates 54 million tons of e-waste annually — like tossing out 1,000 laptops each second. By 2030, 75 million metric tons of e-waste will exist, with China generating about half of it.

This “trash” is dangerous, as it contains hazardous substances and toxic additives. About 8% goes to landfills or incinerators. But many middle and low-income countries lack the waste management infrastructure to dispose of e-waste safely. And improper management contributes to global warming, too.

Temperature exchange equipment contains refrigerants — some of which are greenhouse gases. 

 Improperly discarded air conditioners, for example, released 98 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2019 — that’s 0.3% of global energy-related emissions. Data centers house tens of thousands of IT devices and equipment, and it’s incumbent that they set an example for properly recycling, refurbishing and reusing broken or outdated equipment.

Land Use

How and where data centers are built also impacts the environment. Smaller data centers may “only” need 100,000 square feet. Larger data centers, however, require millions of square feet. The largest data center in the U.S. is in Prineville, OR, and spans 4.6 million square feet

Of the approximately 2,500 data centers in the U.S., their primary markets include Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston, Austin, Dallas, and areas in and around New York and New Jersey. Northern Virginia is the country’s largest data center market. 

Making way for these data centers requires clearing a significant amount of land, which unbalances ecosystems and disrupts biodiversity — and potentially has other unintended widespread effects. 

For example, one proposed data center housed in Prince William County, VA, will require rezoning 2,100 acres of land. The potential impact on the area is high. Currently, this Prince William Digital Gateway, which will include 27 million square feet of data centers, has yet to be developed as concerned organizations seek insight into the project’s long-term environmental impact.

Greenhouse Gasses (GHG)

GHGs, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, trap heat in the atmosphere. When trapped, the gases remain in the atmosphere for a few years to thousands of years. When trapped, they contribute to rising global temperatures.

CO2 is the primary GHG resulting from fossil fuel consumption. Data center construction adds to these emissions, from the cement they need to the resource-intensive steel. The heavy equipment — earth movers, graders, cranes, dump trucks — needed to build them runs on fossil fuels.

But new types of concrete are being developed to reduce the 1.25 tons of CO2 generated in every ton of concrete. By 2023, a new kind of concrete could eliminate 500 metric tonnes of CO2. To help counteract the effect of fossil fuels used in their construction and operation, data centers can determine PUE and lean into more renewable energy sources for power needs.

Championing data center sustainability

Data center operators have many strategies to decarbonize and embrace sustainability. They include:

  • Optimizing PUE by investing in more energy-efficient equipment and renewable energy sources.
  • Reducing the burden on physical equipment by leveraging virtualization.
  • Exploring innovative approaches to cooling, seeking alternate water sources, and implementing a water strategy that prizes water conservation.
  • Developing and implementing disposal plans for reusing, recycling and breaking down old equipment and e-waste with greener strategies.
  • Using locally sourced materials — and choosing limestone instead of concrete — when building new data centers.
  • Calculating and tracking to measure progress toward climate goals.
  • Implementing carbon capture and sequestration to reduce CO2 emissions.

The world can’t exist without data centers. Understanding how they use resources and knowing how their operation affects the environment should empower stakeholders to collaborate on retrofitting and redesigning eco-friendly, sustainable data center infrastructure for the future.

Are you a commercial real estate investor or looking for a specific property to meet your company’s needs? We invite you to talk to the professionals at CREA United: an organization of CRE professionals from 92 firms representing all disciplines within the CRE industry, from brokers to subcontractors, financial services to security systems, interior designers to architects, movers to IT, and more.

Related Articles