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Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Hydro and the Higher Ed Data Center
December 14, 2011 - 8:00pm

I'm in the middle of reading (actually listening to) Daniel Yergin's amazing new book The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. Are any of you also reading The Quest?  (It is 816 pages, or almost 30 hours in audio - and worth every second). 

Energy is much on my mind. Particularly electricity.

What you and I are doing right now depends on electricity. I could not write this post, and you could not read it, unless someplace somewhere the electricity to power our computers and run our networks was produced.  

If you work in educational technology (or any technology field) you probably spend lots of time thinking about servers. We worry about the electric bill to power our servers.  We worry about the electric bill to cool our server rooms. But we may not know, or even think about, how the electricity that flows into our data centers was produced.

The current breakdown for U.S. net generation shares by energy sources, according to an, is as follows*:

Coal: 43.1%
Natural Gas: 24.2%
Nuclear: 18.6%
Hydroelectric: 8.3%
Other Energy Sources (including wind and solar): 4.9%
Oil:  0.7%


You may be surprised that we still largely depend on burning rocks (coal) to run our servers, laptops and tablets. Or that natural gas and nuclear accounts for such a large share of electricity production, while oil is completely insignificant.

I wonder about:

  • How do the sources for electricity that power our campus data centers compare to U.S. numbers?    
  • Apple's planned new campus in Cupertino will create its own electricity using natural gas turbines and solar panels, and rely on the grid for backup power. Is anyone in higher ed doing something similar to Apple when it comes to electrical power generation?
  • Should it be part of the job description of higher ed technology leaders to think about the electricity that flows into our data centers, and to figure out if we can move to lower carbon and renewable alternatives to power our servers?
  • Is anyone tracking and aggregating the data on higher ed electrical consumption and electrical generation sources?

Do you have any answers?

When it comes to our campuses and energy use, what are you curious about?

What are you reading?


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