Green Clouds in Northern Climes

Just google the words "carbon footprint" and you've added seven grams of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, say Harvard researchers. Google disputes this number, but there's little doubt the IT industry is becoming one of the biggest contributors to global warming. The industry now accounts for 2 percent of worldwide emissions—comparable to the annual total for airplanes.

That percentage is set to grow quickly as more digital information comes to reside in "the cloud," meaning on a network instead of your PC. To house it all, Google and other firms are building data centers: vast warehouses of energy-hungry computers that manage massive volumes of data and produce tremendous amounts of heat, requiring even more energy to cool them. In the U.S., data centers now account for 1.5 percent of total electricity use, and that's expected to double by 2011. New legislation in the U.S. and Europe is prioritizing reducing that carbon footprint. And a handful of cold northern nations are now looking to attract a piece of the $110 billion global industry.

These countries aim to exploit two contradictory facts: information can now be stored anywhere, but energy is most efficiently consumed close to the source. Thus several Scottish IT developers are now planning nearly $3 billion in green data centers that tap into Scotland's clean-electricity grid, 20 percent of which comes from renewables like wind. Internet Villages International has joined up with Atlantis Resources, an engineer of ocean turbines, to develop technology that could power local data centers with energy from Scotland's rugged seas. Another company, Lockerbie Data Centres, is planning a green home and business community centered on a clean-energy data facility that runs on wind farms and a biomass plant.

Iceland, struggling to recover from the financial crisis, may be even better poised to become a green data hub. Not only is its frigid weather a cheap way to cool centers, but 100 percent of the country's energy comes from hydroelectric and geothermal plants. Less than 20 percent of this clean energy has been tapped thus far. Before the economic collapse, Iceland laid a network of undersea fiber-optic cables to mainland Europe and North America, which will make it easy to zip data overseas. The investment is "a pretty bold statement for a country like Iceland," says Jeff Monroe of Verne Global, which is launching a $300 million, 37,000-square-meter data center outside Reykjavik. Verne Global calculates that the center could reduce carbon emissions by 50,000 metric tons a year and save $100 million in electricity bills over a decade for companies such as major financial institutions that power anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 servers, using about five megawatts of power. That's also about the size of Facebook, which more than a year ago reported it was operating upwards of 10,000 servers. Giant Internet companies are usually secretive about the size of their data centers and the energy they use, but Google says nine of its largest centers use at least 45 megawatts total, eight times the size of Verne Global's metric.

Northern data centers will face competition. Last year Google took out a patent on a floating center that would be cooled by seawater and powered by wind and wave energy. These centers could be anchored closer to home, but wherever the world's data end up is likely to be cold and dreary.

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