Ryan Schuchard, Associate Director, Partnership Development and Research—Climate, BSR

Between 2005 and 2010, electricity used by data centers worldwide increased by about 56 percent, and now represents about 1 to 1.5 percent of global electricity use.

Today, data center operators like eBay, HP, and Facebook are combining long-time efforts on operational and network efficiency with new initiatives to increase the share of low-carbon power supply. They are working on two fronts: developing technology partnerships and putting new renewable energy projects in the ground, and working with policymakers to ensure that they can source low-carbon power on a large scale.

Given the importance of holding global warming to no more than 2°C, this presents an opportunity for technology companies to take a lead on climate change. And as information and communication technology becomes more integrated into business and our personal lives, data centers—and the opportunity to source more low-carbon power intelligently—matter to more companies and stakeholders.

The challenge appears when considering the different types of data centers, which can be everything from a server closet to a facility that uses as much power as a small town. And they represent all kinds of ownership and operating structures.

In the past year, BSR’s Future of Internet Power initiative conducted interviews with companies and experts about how to address these challenges, and our new report outlines four data center contexts, and smart ways to consider low-carbon sourcing for each situation:

Cloud: Cloud data centers run one or a few industrial-scale, mission-critical applications that serve customers. In eBay’s case, this is an online marketplace for global customers on all types of devices. Because of eBay’s large size, the company has buying power and economies of scale that may help to negotiate with utilities and renewable-energy-power developers to establish new sources of low-carbon power at a manageable cost.

Enterprise: Most large companies have “in-house” data centers that support a wide array of internal applications, from secure processing facilities for banking and high-performance computing centers for company R&D, to portable data center pods. While individual enterprise data centers tend to be small, they often constitute the company’s largest source of energy use, which can make an enterprise data centers a good focal point for GHG reductions within the company.

Managed: Managed data centers are used for mid-sized applications  in enterprise and cloud data centers, but these are managed by one company on behalf of another. They range from hands-off, “wholesale” arrangements, for which the operator rents out secure powered rooms, to more involved “retail” services, for which the operator provides a suite of equipment, bandwidth, storage, networking, cooling, and staff support. HP runs a form of managed data centers with its service that builds data centers for customers. Managed operators may could offer packages that give customers incentives for better performance, and they can aggregate the power of their customers to create the scale needed for making deals with utilities and power developers.

Rented: Rented data centers are the opposite of managed data centers: Salesforce.com, for instance, rents data center operations for its cloud-based applications from facilities owned and managed by others. This provides flexibility while companies adapt and expand. Other companies rent data centers for enterprise applications in efforts to increase efficiency. Operators that rent data centers often face a split incentives problem, where the owner of the facilities they rent from must play a role in low-carbon power sourcing, but the owner may not be interested in pursuing new arrangements. In these cases, companies that rent data centers may have opportunities to educate and work with their data center providers to partner on group power sourcing and engagement with policymakers.

For more information, read our full report, “Intelligent, Low-Carbon Power Sourcing for Data Centers,” or visit our Future of Internet Power web page.