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Data centers: Explosive growth, smart and green

Facebook data center servers use free outdoor air for cooling in seasons when and where available. But there are many other ways to reduce PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) and greenhouse gases in data centers.

The mad increase in data as an essential part of how our world works is why data centers are projected to constitute a $27 billion industry by 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

That’s great for anyone who can appreciate the benefits of such things as virtualization, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and the building infrastructure for automated vehicles (which I recently detailed for a client on Also by the DoE’s numbers, data centers already consume 2% of the nation’s energy – raising the specter of an ever-growing carbon footprint for all this data processing and storage.

From my own touchstones with the development and operations of data centers, perhaps some of those concerns are misplaced. Or at the very least, the environmental challenges are being offset by some great innovations that can actually reduce carbon output overall – and even revitalize old buildings in aging towns, far away from population centers, where renewable energy is often generated and jobs are hard to come by.

I don’t pretend to have conducted a full cradle-to-cradle lifecycle assessment in each of the following stories (business writers like me sometimes have to trust the experts – and give them proper attribution). But each article I’ve written in the past few years suggests the story has nuance, such as how energy consumption can be mitigated in and outside of the data centers, how some DCs actually foster renewable energy infrastructure development, and how other economic benefits result in host communities as well:

Facebook is greening the Nebraska grid. The social media juggernaut’s commitment to use 100% clean energy includes its membership in the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), which strives to “green the grid for all.” Working closely with the Omaha-area utility company, Facebook is subsidizing the development of wind energy infrastructure that will ultimately serve all users in the Omaha region.

Sharing the energy-savings breakthroughs to everyone’s benefit. Facebook also has internally addressed problems that include harmonics and short-circuited current that were messing with power quality and efficiency. Thanks to the work of Jay Park, the company’s vice president of data center design, the company achieved a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) score of 1.09, far below the industry average of 1.5. After doing that, they went open-source, making this achievement available to everyone else.

Reuse of old parts in Google data centers. Chicago’s Google office is an uber-cool place that I cruise by often on my urban biking adventures. So when assigned to write about it, I was happy to learn the repurposed building (formerly a meat warehouse) has a trifecta of green certifications (LEED v4, Living Building Challenge, and the WELL Building Standard). The company also has nine US-based data centers, including one in wind-rich Iowa (which hosts many more dedicated DCs for the likes of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, and many more for colocation facilities). But most surprising to me was how the company reuses parts of old servers in a “zero waste to landfill” program.

Cold War bunkers make great data centers. An enterprising scion of a family-owned telecom business in central and western New York State got creative with some assets it owns in the Finger Lakes region. Many ground-level, blast-hardened storage bunkers from 50+ years ago now serve as colocation data centers. Repurposing existing buildings creates a very low carbon footprint compared to building new structures.

Repurposing old buildings bring Rust Belt cities into the digital age. Presidential hopeful and current South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg took an abandoned Studebaker manufacturing plant, empty for a half century, and led investors to turning it into a data center. Once an eyesore and doing nothing for the tax base, repurposing it generated construction jobs in the redevelopment phase and it employs a small number of people ever since. The presence of such things as data centers, within proximity of tech talent at nearby University of Notre Dame, are catalysts in job creation. Side note: According to this story in Wired, Buttiegieg did this without offering generous subsidies as is often the case elsewhere. (NOTE: I didn't write this particular story).

It takes people and personality to build an efficient data center. Dell EMC’s enterprise data center and engineering lab in Durham, North Carolina was built in 2017 at 15 percent below budget – despite how major changes were incorporated into the building retrofit just a month before construction started. What helped was the team of stakeholders (architects, engineers, the general contractor and critical subcontractors) took the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator test; the application of this respected tool based on Jungian theory is thought to have fostered optimal working relationships and problem-solving behaviors. The structure achieved a LEED Gold certification.

But perhaps my favorite story about clean and green data centers is about DuctSox Corporation, which manufactures fabric air ducts. They’re easier to install and clean than the sheet metal versions, saving resources and ensuring greater efficiencies in air handling. The company’s data center-specific product, DataSox, ensures the kind of hygiene and efficiencies those warm servers require. They also add colorful features along the ceilings, livening up erstwhile boring technical places.

Russ Klettke is a business writer with experience in a broad range of industries. Contact him at to discuss SEO, corporate communications and media relations programming.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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