How to Reduce Northwest Data Center Climate Impacts at a Profit
Oregon and Pacific Northwest energy and climate issues were highlighted in three recent news stories.
- Google announced expansion of their large data center complex in The Dalles, Oregon, which will double the energy used at that facility.
- Oregon’s Global Warming Commission confirmed that Oregon won’t meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals using existing measures.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called on world leaders to accelerate efforts to reduce the GHG pollution that drives global climate change.
In addition to Google, other big Oregon and Northwest climate footprints include data center owners Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Intel and others. Each consumes substantial energy resources. They are responsible for a significant and growing fraction of Northwest GHG pollution.
Here’s how these companies can reverse that trend and profitably accelerate reductions in GHG pollution. The cost of solar energy has fallen to the point where large companies can use their cash and strong balance sheets to build profitable independent solar power plants in rural Oregon, and produce sufficient solar electricity to power their operations.
Each company already has public commitments to climate protection, including energy efficiency and renewable energy investments. None of these companies yet produces enough renewable electricity to fully power their global operations, but they are making progress.
For example, Google and Apple have invested in several large renewable energy power plants, and are competing to see which company can lead. Google has invested about $2 billion, mostly to build large wind energy systems, including Sheppard Flats in Oregon.
Data centers use a lot of electricity. The electric power demand for Google’s data center complex in The Dalles is 37 megawatts (MW). It runs nearly full time at that level, and uses enough electricity over the course of a year to power 27,000 homes. Its new data center there will likely increase that to about 70 MW, enough for about 50,000 homes. Large data centers now use 2.4 percent of Pacific Northwest regional electricity, about 500 average MW per year, which releases 1.8 million tons of GHG pollution per year.
Solar power plants built on land in sunny parts of Oregon produce energy about one fifth of the hours in the year. That means solar power plant capacity needs to be five times larger than a data center’s electric demand in order to produce as much energy as a data center uses annually.
Google’s 70 MW data center complex in The Dalles would require 350 MW of solar power plants to offset its electric use. Land required for this would be nearly 4 square miles (which is much larger than their rooftops!). To offset the 500 MW used by Northwest data centers about 2,500 MW of solar power would be required. The land needed would equal about 27 square miles, which for comparison is only 1/8 of 1% of Oregon agricultural land. Total solar investment would be about $4.5 billion.
There is a market for the solar electricity these plants would make. Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and Idaho Power buy solar electricity from independent power plants using standard contracts at regulated prices. Solar power plants would make energy at between 5 and 7 cents per kilowatt-hour and sell it to the electric utilities at about 8 cents per kWh.
This strategy benefits the regional economy, data center owners, rural counties, electric utility customers, and the environment. The solar investments would advance economic development and job growth in rural Oregon, and create a new tax base for Oregon counties. The long-term, predictable-cost solar energy sales to the electric utilities would help to stabilize long-term electric rates for all Oregon energy consumers.
If the 500 MW electric demand of all large Oregon and Washington data centers were offset by solar energy, then greenhouse gas pollution would be reduced in the Northwest by 1.8 million tons per year, at a profit.
So how about it Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Intel and Amazon? Bring large-scale solar energy investments to Oregon. Improve the Oregon economy, your bottom lines, and the climate.