Too Much of a Good Thing?

Cicero - Compass Datacenters

“Never go to excess, let moderation be your guide”

Usually when we think of the concepts of excess and moderation we tend to personalize them due to the fact that there is typically a direct cause and effect between how we apply them. For example, the tendency to overeat during the holidays often manifests itself with a range of emotions and behaviors: denial—“what have you done to this scale?”—accusations—“honey, the cleaners shrunk my pants”—or even capitulation—“where are my sweats?” If we apply the concept of moderation to our eating habits a completely different set of behavior emerges: confusion—“Am I supposed to eat this or just graze in it?”—sarcasm—“Starving kids in Africa get bigger portions than this”—and defensiveness—“I am not holding my stomach in”. A recent article in the Oregonian seems to indicate that the residents of the Beaver state are also a bit conflicted in terms of excess and moderation in regard to the growing numbers of data centers within their borders.

If ever a state was destined to become a data center Mecca it is Oregon. As the author of the article points out they have a temperate climate, cheap power, no sales tax or property tax for data centers located in state-designated enterprise zones. All these elements combine to provide an explanation for the plethora of “Greetings From Oregon” postcards emanating from the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon and other data center operators. So far so good. However, after much sleuthing and analysis the good citizens of the area have uncovered a heretofore hidden truth—these things use one heck of a lot of electricity. So much electricity in fact that current estimates indicate, and I quote, “they (data centers) could devour nearly 10 percent of all the Northwest’s energy by 2030”.

Naturally, a number of Oregonian’s are beginning to equate this level of energy use as the Kirstie Alley in a mumu portion of a weight loss ad and it is causing them no end of concern. According to the article, some seem to view these going’s on as a sort of sinister conspiracy on the part of data center users and their willing minions to hide their long term plans to surreptitiously consume all of the state’s available power: “the secretive industry and the utilities that serve them will say little about their long term plans…” As these “Oswald didn’t act alone” groupies huddle in fear, clearer heads within the state are perplexed at which direction to take.

The problem of data center driven escalating energy use does not mean the state is without options. They do have laws dictating that a certain percentage of power come from alternative sources but even these pose potential problems due to shear volume of energy consumed by the state’s “not quite as welcome anymore” guests. There is wind of course, but the number of turbines required would make Oregon resemble some type of high tech Holland. Solar would be great but I personally object to the prospect of covering Bandon Dunes with photovoltaic panels, and biomass is a non-starter since even the “greenest” Oregonian would blanche at his state resembling the world’s largest compost pile.

So what is Oregon to do? Now the more insensitive among us would say something like “why don’t you build a few more power plants to address the demand?” However, the prospect of pursuing this route is assured to send certain members of Portland’s Birkenstock crowd into encephalitic shock. Others are pinning their hopes on continued technological developments in efficiency to solve the problem. While no one can foresee the future, it is doubtful that innovation will outstrip the increasing levels of demand that will follow the continued addition of data centers within the state. Thus, Oregon seems to be faced with the old excess or moderation choice. Will they follow Cicero’s advice and move to institute controls designed to moderate either the number or size of data centers or will they throw caution to the wind and adopt the philosophy of go big or go home? At this point no one knows, but clearly there are those within the state who are ready to throw down the gauntlet to force the choice.