EU could legislate to make cloud and office servers greener

Google data centre in Groningen, the Netherlands. [Erwin Boogert/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Digital single market.

SPECIAL REPORT: European Commission officials are considering whether to regulate to enforce energy efficiency standards on enterprise servers, technology vital for cloud computing.

But that decision will have to be balanced against the demands of the Commission’s own strategy to boost and speed up the use of cloud computing, as part of a wider digital investment push to help get Europe’s economy moving again.

That strategy sets out actions that, the Commission claims, will deliver a net gain of 2.5 million new European jobs. The 2012 plan should also bring an annual boost of €160 billion to the European Union GDP (about 1%), by 2020.

A 2011 Commission survey showed that the adoption of cloud computing would help 80% of organisations reduce their costs by 10-20%.

The unprecedented increase of data flow over the Internet has had a significant environment impact through energy and water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Cloud computing can help mitigate these problems thanks to more efficient use of hardware as well as, more specifically, by building data centres to use low-energy servers and green energy,” the strategy said. 

Some estimates state that large companies in the US could save $12.3 billion annually in energy consumption by adopting cloud computing.

Rather than keeping their data on office premises in data centres, the information is stored on the Internet – the cloud.  But cloud computing needs larger data centres to handle that information.

The EU executive could regulate the energy efficiency of enterprise servers, the technology used for the cloud and for storing business data.  

Any change to the legislation would take place in the context of the Ecodesign Directive, which sets requirements for all energy-related products in both residential and industrial sectors.

The aim of the directive is that manufactures of the energy-using products should, at the design stage, be obliged to reduce the energy consumption and other environmental impacts of products.

No decision has yet been made and the executive is carrying out a feasibility study on enterprise servers at the moment. Experts believe that the servers should not be too politically sensitive to regulate, despite their relevance to the shift to cloud.

Data centres

Large corporations such as Google and Facebook have already made strenuous efforts to ensure their data centres, where servers are housed, in Finland and Sweden, are as green, and as efficient, as possible.

There is a strong financial incentive for them to be so. Large data centres, needed for cloud computing, use a lot of energy so the less they use, the better.  

Companies can also guarantee price stability by buying renewable energy in advance in ten or 20 year blocks. Google, for example, buys direct from windfarms in such blocks.

Both industry and the Commission agree that these large centres use less energy and are more efficient than medium and smaller data centres.

Even the traditional one or two severs in office basement tend to be extremely inefficient. These smaller facilities represent more than 70% of such data centres worldwide.

Shifting those office centres to the cloud would deliver energy savings, and by extension cost savings, to Europe’s business.

This chart from Google shows how much energy can be saved by shifting an office email system to the cloud.

Gmail v office emailGmail v office email

Broadly speaking, environmental campaigners welcome any digital innovation that helps their cause. Online video conferencing can cut off polluting flights for business meetings, for example.

“Digital of course means energy, but the chances are the net gains offset what looks like the immediate extra drain from more digital activity,” said a spokesman for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of over 140 environmental organisations. The EEB’s Coolproducts campaign pushes for a stronger, faster Ecodesign Directive.

“Research is needed however, rather than a headlong rush into digital, since there is a real danger that, in a nutshell, more cloud may mean more coal,” he added.

That applies more to everyday electronic equipment such as computers or mobile phones. These gadgets, indispensable for digital, drain energy when they are on standby.

The EU’s Ecodesign Directive has made some progress in mitigating this. Currently, the scope covers more than 40 product groups, including boilers, lightbulbs and fridges that are responsible for 40% of the EU greenhouse gas emissions. Smartphones are expected to be on the Ecodesign work plan for 2015-2017.

As for whether the energy efficiency of the technology inside large data centres or office centres will be enforced through regulation, it is too early to say. But policy experts told EURACTIV that the larger servers could well be addressed, as well as smaller ones, despite them not being the worst offenders. 

The European Commission is at the very start of the process. But the EU could potentially have minimum energy performance rules in force by 2018 at the soonest. 

Jean-Claude Juncker announced last year (16 December) that the establishment of a Digital Single Market (DSM) would be one of the priorities in his first term as European Commission president.

“All areas of the economy and society are becoming digital. Europe needs to be at the forefront of this digital revolution for its citizens and its businesses. Barriers to digital are barriers to jobs, prosperity and progress,” Juncker said in laying out the EU executive’s work programme.

Juncker’s DSM strategy will focus on six areas: building trust and confidence, removing restrictions, ensuring access and connectivity, building the Digital economy, promoting e-society and investing in ICT research. Andrus Ansip, vice-president for the Digital Single Market, leads the portfolio.

But what environmental impact will the shift to digital have?

>> Read our LinksDossier: Greening ICT

>> Read our LinksDossier: Eco-design requirements for energy-using products (EuP)

  • 2015-2017: Next Ecodesign work plan

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