Monday, September 24, 2012

Sunday NYT Data Center & Power Story Goes Hyperbolic: Here Is The Side Of The Story Not Fit To Print

The NYT's Sunday front page story with color picture on the power needs and impacts of data centers has all the ingredients of what today's NYT offers--business or government doing nasty things, assaults on the environment, bad news. The piece follows tightly this formula for success but is hyperbolic and distorted.

Let's start with the basic theme that data centers are using enormous amounts of electricity and how the reporter builds it.  The reporter first tells us that data centers around the world use 30 billion watts of electricity or the equivalent of 30 nuclear power plants. I am sure that sounds like huge amounts to those not familiar with the electricity industry.

Of course, what is not said is often as important as what is said.  Not said in the article is that the world has over 470 nuclear plants, and that nuclear power provides less of the world's electricity than hydro by itself.   

But hydro is far from the major source of power for the world. Coal is the world's single, biggest source of electricity.

When all the hyperbole and obfuscation is stripped away, the world's use of electricity for data centers is probably less than 1% of global electricity consumption.  And let's remember that 1% of power makes modern commerce and life possible. The 1% of electricity used at data centers may be the most productive use of electricity on earth!

After his reference to the 30 billion watts of power used globally by data centers, then the reporter darkly quotes a former utility official who says the power use is "unsustainable" and the industry will "hit the wall." That statement is not just hyperbolic. It is totally ridiculous statement and as false as calling the shale gas boom a "Ponzi Scheme!"  

Total US electricity consumption is actually lower today than it was in 2006.  The country has substantial excess generation capacity, without building anything more.  

But the country is building more generation capacity.  In fact, new power capacity is outpacing power plant retirements by two to one or more.  

The electricity demand of data centers is not a problem at all for the US electric industry to meet.  That's why the electric industry does recruit them!

About half way through the sea of ink in this story, the reader is finally told that data centers use about 2% of US power.  Why not say that right up front? Well, it is a less scary frame for the whole piece, is it not?

The article nearly dismisses the fact that the internet sharply cuts energy use in other ways. The reporter tells us that the industry claimed it would cut down on paper but then writes that the paper industry uses billions of kilowatt-hours each year.  That's it.

Ask the US Postal Service what the impact of the internet has been on postal volumes.  Look at your own use of electronic bill paying, banking, and shopping.  

How about electronic computing?  The rise of the home office? How about the gasoline and diesel avoided in transportation. None of that is mentioned.

And since the data center industry is the bad guy in this piece, there is no mention of the industry's use of solar and fuel cells that run on gas.  Instead, the article focuses on the use of diesel generators.   Those are a step back. And it would be much better if gas-fired, micro-turbines or fuel cells were deployed to take the place of diesel generators.

This article, however, is another example of a NYT reporter being given months to investigate an issue and to read thousands of documents, as the reporter tell us. The sheer investment of time requires that the reporter bring forth something other than a mouse. The structure of these big projects contain pressure for bias and false drama.

And so we have another example--this time data centers--of the NYT producing hyperbole and painting a distorted picture for its readers.  


  1. Unfortunatly, this is just another example of the NYT ability to frame an argument in the broader public domain while only presenting part of the argument. The scary part is that they do this more broadly than just when covering the energy debate. Their political coverage is just as biased and incomplete.

  2. Nice analysis of the relative amount of power that data centers around the world use, John. But one of the biggest takeaways from the article should be the dirty diesel generators that these data centers use as backups. Greenpeace issued an interesting report, "How Clean Is Your Cloud," on this issue in April.

  3. I agree that the NYTimes article did not address all the nuances of the issue. However John Hanger's response also does not. Because we expect the best in innovation, efficiency and forward thinking from our computer and data industries, we should expect the same from how that industry gets its power. Even if the electricity is "only" 2% of the total - within that 2% - most of the companies involved still get about 33% of that electricity from non renewable sources - as outlined in the Green Peace Report. John please direct your efforts towards encouraging investigation and rather criticizing the efforts of journalists. We are all in this together.

    1. My concern is not the nuance. It is the hyperbolic frame of the story. I will continue to urge media to be fact based, comparative, contextual, and accurate, instead of sensational, hyperbolic, and misleading. I will do so especially concerning the NYT, as it has major influence and its reporting convinced large number of people that IRAQ possessed WMD; that gas drilling is creating massive impacts on water (not in the top 5 or top sources of water pollution); and now that data centers use so much power that they are unsustainable and will hit a wall.