Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, September 23, 2012

More Heat than Light

And a quick observation on this NYTimes story about the amount of electricity used by internet data centers:  waste heat isn't really wasteful if it can be put to use.  If you have a data center in Minneapolis, then for at least 5 months a year the heat that is generated will not go to waste.  It will simply reduce the amount of energy that has to be used in furnaces.  (Obviously you have to design the data center properly to make full use of the heat it generates.)

In fact, you can imagine building data centers toward the poles in each hemisphere, and switching back and forth between them with the seasons.  I am not sure the southern hemisphere has much population in really cold areas—Buenos Aires isn't nearly as cold as Minneapolis, for example—but in principle you could run these things for very little net energy expenditure.

Although I guess it depends a little on how much energy it takes to send data thousands of miles.  But I doubt it is very much.

Another thought.  Even in warm areas, people need to heat water for daily use (showers, washing dishes).  In an urban area, I wonder if you could use tap water to cool the data center and then feed the warmed-up water into the water heaters in surrounding buildings.  Even if you only warm the water by 10 degrees, I bet that would save a fair amount of energy, and realistically maybe you could raise water temperature by 15 or 20 degrees.  (Tap water in my apartment is about 70 degrees right now, and I'm guessing you could raise it to over 100 degrees in a data center.)  This would only work if you had a lot of demand for hot water in a fairly small geographical space.

But come to think of it, there must be lots of industrial uses for hot water.  Breweries use hot water for a lot of applications, and I bet they are not unique.  I wonder if you could split the cost of the data center between the company using it (internet company) and the company using the heat (brewery).  If water entered your water heater at 110 degrees, I think you would save quite a bit on heating that water to however hot you need it to be.


Blogger Grobstein said...

Yes. I like to make this point about incandescent light bulbs, as well.

The bigger problem with the Times report, though, is that it doesn't net these "waste" calculations against any meaningful baseline. "Cloud" operations that take place in datacenters at least sometimes replace operations that would otherwise take place on end-user hardware. For example, Google maintains storage for my email history going back many years; in times past people kept email on home or institutional machines, on their desks or in closets. Datacenters are probably much more efficient than the home-office or corporate equipment they replace.

The Times also cites "experts" who describe the levels of redundancy and performance of these datacenters as so high as to be "wasteful." The obvious rejoinder is, who the fuck are you? You think my cloud email is too reliable and safe? Fuck you!

Datacenters have to pay their electric bills and follow generally applicable laws. Ideally, electric bills would include Pigovian carbon taxes to discourage overuse of electricity. But this kind of investigation that just eyeballs power use without any reference to economics and goes, "Duh, that seems wasteful," well, that seems wasteful.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Concomitant with the rise of the cloud, end-users are increasingly substituting light-weight, low power computers for the big desktop systems of yore. The power savings of using only laptops instead of desktops, of checking email and using web services on a smartphone, etc., are all directly related to the growth of data centers.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Now maybe the green consultants are right that datacenters are leaving money on the table by powering idle servers too much or some shit, or maybe the consultants just have a trendy message and a modicum of media savvy and successfully used the Times story to promote their business.

But this kind of reporting doesn't really tell us.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

Slate piece making some of these same points, and also some cool reporting on saving energy by wearing shorts.

Times article still seems pretty stupid.

Sign of the very low level of the discourse on environmental issues, even among educated liberals who are environmental voters. This is why I am pessimistic about things like "green energy" policy etc.; policy is targeting the opinions of a voting public that is extremely unsophisticated. Technologies that are probably pareto-worse are subsidized and adopted because they sound green, e.g. biofuels. ("Pareto-worse" for the environment: not simply worse for the environment overall, but worse for the environment even along the dimensions they are supposed to help, like CO2 emissions.) Educated consensus may be slowly coming around to the view that corn ethanol is not a good fuel for us, but government-savvy entrepreneurs will just move on to the next "green" scheme.

This is why I favor what I hope are blunt schemes, like a carbon tax, where impact is less speculative and easier to measure, and administration requires less subtle judgment.

But I am pessimistic overall. As I have said, I think we will decline to pay any serious price for climate mitigation now and will wind up paying a higher price later, in the form of flood damage, crop failures, etc., as well as high-cost radical mitigation efforts like "geo-engineering."

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