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China Data Centers Guzzle Electricity, Boosting Carbon Emissions

Sept. 9, 2019, 2:01 AM

Data centers in China could consume two-thirds more electricity by 2023 than they do now, leading to increased carbon emissions and undermining policies to keep them “green,” according to new findings.

That bump in electricity consumption is expected to boost carbon emissions to 163 million metric tons by 2023, from 99 million metric tons currently—unless the centers greatly increase their use of renewable energy as a power source, according to a joint report from North China Electric Power University, a national research institution in Beijing, and Greenpeace East Asia.

Nearly three-quarters of the electricity used by China’s data centers in 2018 came from coal-fired power, compared to 59% used in the nation’s total energy mix.

These centers host an ever-expanding amount of photo, video, e-mail, and online transaction data, with electricity needed for managing servers and cooling them so they don’t overheat.

China’s big three tech companies have actively sourced renewable power: Baidu Inc. at its Yangquan data center in Shanxi province, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. at its Zhangbei data center in Hebei province, and Tencent Holding Ltd. at its Qingpu district data center in Shanghai. And Apple Inc. has incorporated renewables to provide power to data centers in Guizhou and Inner Mongolia, the report said.

But around 90% of all data centers in the country haven’t taken the initiative to source renewable power. This is primarily because most are located in areas where renewable sources form a small part of the energy mix, according to the report.

But even a 7% increase in the use of renewable energy from China’s data centers during the next five years would mean a drop in carbon emissions of 16 million metric tons, or around 10 million round-trip transatlantic flights, the report said.

‘Green Data’

The data center industry has grown at an average rate of 10% each year since 2015, when China first released guidelines for “green data centers” to operate with greater energy efficiency.

But the guidelines, last updated in February, don’t mandate using renewables to reduce the reliance on coal-fired power for servers and their cooling equipment.

“There are signs that the government has been paying attention to the rapid growth of data centers and their energy consumption,” Ye Ruiqi, an energy and climate campaigner at Greenpeace who worked on the report, told Bloomberg Environment Sept. 6.

“However, the majority of policy focus has been on optimizing power use effectiveness,” she said. “Energy efficiency alone is not enough to address the scale of climate challenges we are facing.”

Without supportive policies to tap into renewable energy or move sources closer, it’s likely most centers will continue to depend on electricity supplied by coal-fired power.

“Lots of data centers can’t move to areas [closer to renewable sources], not just because of long network delays, but also poor infrastructure,” said Zheng Zhuling, director of Shanghai Green Data Center Committee.

The report encourages data center companies to build or invest in renewable power projects, directly purchase power from renewable energy providers, or purchase green power certificates to offset their coal-fired power use.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Standaert in Shenzhen, China, at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Jean Fogarty at jfogarty@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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