A new report has revealed the most climate-friendly regions in which to operate data centers. The findings point to the challenges holding the sector back from reducing carbon emissions, as well as ways tech companies can mitigate the climate toll of their cloud computing demands.
The report, released Thursday by cloud management platform Cirrus Nexus, analyzed the energy consumed over the course of a week in regions of the U.S. and Europe where major cloud service providers tend to concentrate their data centers. It then estimated each region’s carbon intensity, a metric of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity generated (in this case, grams per kilowatt hour).
Chris Noble, CEO and co-founder of Cirrus Nexus, said the report emerged out of a desire to recommend the regions with the least carbon-intensive data centers. However, Noble said, there’s “not a simple answer.” While regions that rely the most on solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power tend to have the lowest carbon intensity, that measure fluctuates dramatically due to renewables’ intermittency when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
In the U.S., Midwestern data centers were consistently among the most carbon-intensive due to the grid’s heavy reliance on coal and methane gas. Texas, in comparison, relies on both wind and gas. That leaves it a cut above the Midwest but worse off than the Northwest, where hydropower plays a major role in electricity generation.
In Europe, data centers located in Sweden and France — both of which rely largely on nuclear, though Sweden has abundant hydro resources as well — had the lowest carbon intensities. The countries also avoided the peaks and valleys in carbon intensity common across countries like Italy and Germany, which have solar infrastructure but rely on fossil alternatives when the sun is not shining.
Ireland offered a particularly stark example of the swings in carbon intensity that come with renewables. The country started the week Cirrus Nexus analyzed with a carbon intensity in the middle of the European pack. But when the wind slackened mid-week, it became the dirtiest region in Europe. Once the wind picked up again, though, Ireland rocketed to third-cleanest and even generated excess power, which it exported to the U.K.
The report emphasized the importance of increasing energy storage. Doing so would allow the grid — and the cloud computing infrastructure that relies on it — to smooth out the inconsistency of renewables without relying on fossil fuels in the absence of sun or wind.
Noble said it would behoove companies to factor fluctuating carbon intensities into where they locate their operations, if minimizing their climate toll is deemed a corporate priority: “Companies should also focus on optimizing their operations in order to reduce total emissions, not just use carbon credits to offset,” he added.
However, Noble said companies that buy cloud computing services historically have had a blindspot for the emissions tied to data center operations, and factors like cost and proximity to a company’s main operations generally outweigh carbon intensity when selecting a cloud computing provider.
Complicating matters is the fact that the regions with the lowest carbon intensity also tend to offer the most expensive cloud computing services. And the report points out that if demand for clean computing increases, it could actually drive up prices even more in the short to medium term, at least until more carbon-free generation capacity comes online.
Tech companies with cloud computing workloads generally look to cloud management platforms to oversee both their systems and how much they spend on them. Cirrus Nexus advises companies to design their applications so that their workloads can be moved between data centers to keep costs down as they fluctuate overtime; according to Noble, an increasing number of the company’s clients have asked about managing carbon as well.
Ultimately, Noble said the carbon intensity of cloud operations is a function of what customers demand. If they suddenly tell cloud computing providers that they will go somewhere else unless the provider minimizes its carbon intensity, Noble said there could be a rush to bolster data centers with solar panels or storage.
But that all starts with companies actually factoring carbon intensity into their decision of where to go to get their cloud computing needs met.