WCBE

Making The Cloud Green: Tech Firms Push For Renewable Energy Sources

Jul 22, 2016

At Green House Data in Cheyenne, Wyo., energy efficiency is an obsession.

When someone enters one of the company's secured data vaults, they're asked to pause in the entryway and stomp their shoes on a clear rubber mat with a sticky, glue-like finish.

"Dust is a huge concern of ours," says Art Salazar, the director of operations.

That's because dust makes electronics run hotter, which then means using more electricity to cool them down. For data centers, the goal is to use as little electricity as possible, because it's typically companies' biggest expense.

In 2013, data centers consumed 2 percent of all U.S. power — triple what they consumed in 2000. Wendy Fox, Green House Data's communications director, says the sector has a responsibility to source that electricity sustainably.

The power Green House Data draws from the grid mostly comes from coal. The company offsets that by purchasing green energy credits that support renewable energy development elsewhere.

But larger companies are no longer interested in simply buying credits. Instead, they want to get more of their power directly from renewables.

"Direct sourcing is important to us because our goal is really the transformation of the electric grid," says Brian Janous, the director of energy for Microsoft, which owns Wyoming's largest data center.

Microsoft is teaming up with dozens of other powerful companies, including Facebook and Google, to push for easier access to renewable energy.

Janous says they have leverage.

"We're going back to our utility every year and saying, 'We're going consume more power next year than we did the year before,' " Janous says.

Green House Data used 15 million kilowatt-hours last year, enough to power 1,500 homes.

"This is the cloud," Salazar says, standing in front of rows and rows of glass and metal cabinets.

The cloud — where you upload photos and stream video — is a real, physical thing. Those cabinets are chock-full of humming electronics and colorful cables, all fed by enormous black power lines, snaking along the ceiling of the room.

And they consume an enormous amount of electricity.

"The electrical resources of the planet are finite, but our need for data seems to be infinite," Fox says.

A recent study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab suggests that electricity consumption growth is slowing, but even so, data companies are much larger consumers of electricity today than they were in the past.

Janous says that puts tech companies in a unique negotiating position with utilities, and with the states that want to attract their business.

"We want to influence policy, we want to influence the availability of these resources," he says.

And it appears to be working.

In Nevada, a data company was able to convince the utility NV Energy to build new renewable capacity for its project. In Virginia, Microsoft has negotiated an agreement for a new solar farm.

Microsoft has already invested around $1 billion in data centers in Wyoming. Shawn Reese of the Wyoming Business Council hopes that's just the beginning.

"We want Microsoft to continue to grow here and, frankly, we want some of their competitors to be here in the state of Wyoming as well," he says.

But Wyoming doesn't have a lot of renewable energy available. Reese says that needs to change — or the state will risk losing out on business from one of the nation's fastest growing sectors.

"The markets are changing," he says. "The technologies are changing and the state's got to keep up with those."

Copyright 2016 Wyoming Public Radio Network. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio Network.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Google, Microsoft and Facebook, some of the world's biggest data companies, have joined a new coalition that's pushing for easier access to renewable energy. The group is trying to fundamentally change how electricity is made, including in states that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce explains.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: At Green House Data in Cheyenne, energy efficiency is an obsession. As I enter one of the company's secure data vaults, Art Salazar, the director of operations, asked me to pause in the entryway.

ART SALAZAR: We'll need you to stomp on that a few times.

JOYCE: That is a clear rubber mat with a sticky, glue-like finish. My boots leave dirty imprints on the mat, which, as Salazar explains, is the point.

SALAZAR: Dust is a huge concern of ours.

JOYCE: That's because dust makes electronics run hotter, which then means using more electricity to cool them down. And for data centers, the goal is to use as little electricity as possible.

SALAZAR: This is the cloud. You're standing right in front of the cloud.

JOYCE: The cloud, where you upload photos and stream video. It's a real physical thing. And at Green House Data, it looks like rows and rows of glass and metal cabinets, chock-full of humming electronics and colorful cables. All those electronics consume an enormous amount of electricity. Green House Data used 15 million kilowatt-hours last year. Wendy Fox is the company's communications director.

WENDY FOX: The electrical resources of the planet are finite, but our need for data seems to be infinite.

JOYCE: In 2013, data centers consumed 2 percent of all U.S. power, triple what they consumed in 2000. The power Green House Data draws from the grid mostly comes from coal. They offset that by purchasing green energy credits that support renewable energy development elsewhere. But larger companies are no longer interested in simply buying credits. Instead, they want to get more of their power directly from renewables. Brian Janous is the director of energy for Microsoft, which owns Wyoming's largest data center.

BRIAN JANOUS: Direct sourcing is important to us because our goal is really the transformation of the electric grid.

JOYCE: That's right, the transformation of the electric grid. Microsoft is teaming up with dozens of other powerful companies, including Facebook and Google, to push for easier access to renewable energy. Janous says they have leverage.

JANOUS: We're going back to our utility every year and saying, we're going to consume more power next year than we did the year before.

JOYCE: A recent study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab suggests that growth is slowing. But even so, data companies are much larger consumers of electricity today than they were in the past. And Janous says that puts them in a unique negotiating position with utilities and with the states that want to attract their business.

JANOUS: We want to influence policy. We want to influence the availability of these resources.

JOYCE: And it appears to be working. In Nevada, a data company was able to convince the utility NV Energy to build new renewable capacity for its project. In Virginia, Microsoft has negotiated an agreement for a new solar farm. In Wyoming, Microsoft has already invested around a billion dollars in data centers. And Shawn Reese, the director of the Wyoming Business Council, hopes that's just the beginning.

SHAWN REESE: We want Microsoft to continue to grow here. And frankly, we want some of their competitors to be here in the state of Wyoming as well.

JOYCE: But Wyoming doesn't have a lot of renewable energy available. Reese says that needs to change.

REESE: The markets are changing. The technologies are changing, and the state's got to keep up with us.

JOYCE: Or risk losing out on business from one of the nation's fastest-growing sectors. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.