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China’s rapidly growing data center industry should boost its renewable energy intake over the next few years to prevent millions of tons of planet-warming carbon emissions, according to a study published Monday by the environmental NGO Greenpeace East Asia and the North China Electric Power University.
Data centers’ heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity resulted in the emission of an estimated 99 million tons of carbon dioxide last year, researchers found. With the industry on track to grow by two-thirds over the next five years, that figure could rise to 163 million tons by 2023 if renewable energy intake remains steady at 23%.
However, comparatively modest proportional rises in renewable energy use could help data centers reduce carbon emissions by millions of tons, according to the report. Increasing intake to 30% by 2023 would stop up to 16 million tons of carbon — the equivalent of 10 million round-trip transatlantic flights — from entering the atmosphere, the researchers said.
Data center firms should accelerate the transition toward clean energy by building or investing in renewables, procuring electricity directly from renewable energy generators, and purchasing so-called green power certificates, the researchers recommended. Additionally, China’s government should foster the development of new data centers in central and western provinces with surpluses of clean energy, they added, thereby avoiding the centers’ continued buildup in eastern provinces that tend to rely more heavily on polluting forms of power generation.
“Power market reforms and rapid growth in wind and solar power have created unprecedented opportunities for China’s internet giants to procure clean energy. The data center sector can and should play a leading role in China’s energy transition from heavy reliance on coal to renewable energy,” said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Ye Ruiqi.
Data centers are facilities housing networked computer servers that organize, process, and store large amounts of information. China’s data center industry grew by more than 10% per year between 2015 and 2017, the report says, citing the China Electronics Standardization Institute. The sector’s market value was 123 billion yuan ($17 billion) last year and is projected to be worth 276 billion yuan by 2021, according to market research company Kezhi Consulting.
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