The era of the 100 MW data center

Facebook Data CenterThe first phase of Facebook’s data center in Prineville, Ore. will have a capacity for 28 MW of power, points out Data Center Knowledge. That’s about the same amount of power used by all the homes and businesses in the rest of the Oregon county where the data center is located. And that’s just the first of three potential parts of Facebook’s data center in Oregon. When all three stages are built out, the entire facility could have a whopping power capacity of 78 MW.
Data centers are increasingly requiring energy capacity of close to 100 MW of power, which is the equivalent power for about 80,000 U.S. homes, says Greenpeace. While most Internet companies don’t disclose the details of their facilities’ energy consumption, Apple’s (s aapl) billion-dollar data center in North Carolina is estimated to require 100 MW, according to Greenpeace. Google’s (s goog) data center in North Carolina is estimated to require between 60 MW to 100 MW when the second phase of it is fully built out, and Facebook has another data center in North Carolina, which is estimated to be smaller with a capacity of 40 MW.
A large coal plant, or even a really large solar thermal plant, can produce 500 MW of power. So a 100 MW data center would consume a significant portion of the output of a large power plant.
How dirty the power is that goes to these data centers depends on the region. As Greenpeace explained in its report last year: North Carolina, which is housing some of these Internet companies’ new data centers, “is one of the dirtiest in the country, with only 4 percent of electricity generation from renewable sources and the balance from coal (61 percent) and nuclear (30.8 percent).”
All of these numbers highlight just how energy-intensive the Internet has become, and how always-on servers will require increasing amounts of power to be sustained as more people get online and spend more of their time online. While the energy consumption growth of data centers was hampered slightly by the recession in recent years, according to Jonathan Koomey’s report on the subject last year, electricity used by data centers worldwide grew by 56 percent from 2005 to 2010, and by 36 percent over that time period in the U.S.
The total electricity use by data centers in 2010 was 1.3 percent of all electricity use for the world, and two percent of all electricity use for the U.S. At one point, the Environmental Protection Agency predicted data center power consumption in the U.S. would grow to 12 gigawatts by the end of 2011, or the output of 25 large power plants.
At the same time, Internet companies are starting to be more conscientious about making data centers more energy-efficient, and some are even investing in clean power, too. For example, Apple has been building a solar project near its data center in North Carolina, and both Facebook and Google are aggressively cutting their cooling power needs by using outside air for cooling for some of their data centers.