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Pulling Data Centers Into Cities

Modern Data Storage

Uncovering the forces that push data centers to the periphery of society is not much of a puzzle. Companies stick a shovel in the ground out where land is flat and cheap—maybe even with the occasional local tax break. As a result, these large structures often swallow farmland or virgin wooded area instead of infilling around developed plots or, better yet, filling the floors of existing, vacant warehouses. That is the first problem.If our telecom network of wire and cable is the veins of the internet then data centers are its organs and they are consistently growing in size and number—a pace that no one thinks is going to slow in the foreseeable future. When it comes to the placement of these digital warehouses, the criteria for locations are equally consistent with new sites often placed out in rural or suburban America. Despite the fact that pedestrians and residents may not have much to do with having a data center down the block, moving them closer to points of higher urban density could let us better utilize all of the resources it takes to run them.


The farther away we push points of power consumption the farther we have to reach in order to bring services to them. On average we lose 7-10% of the power we produce through its transmission, so the farther it has to go the more we need to produce just to get it there. The same goes for all of our other services like water, sewer and, in this case, telecom lines that are most likely fiber optic cables. Some estimates put the cost of fiber optic cable at $30,000 per mile, but costs vary greatly in response to site conditions. Granted, laying anything in the city is going to be more expensive per mile, but New York City averages over 27,500 people per square mile so one mile of cable is probably reaching a lot more customers.

Though many people may think of the internet as this vast, limitless, ethereal void in space where information runs free, the digital superhighway has a very real, material existence with massive energy needs. If we combined all of the world's data centers into their own country, it would be the sixth largest power consumer on the planet. All that power gets fed through servers and switches in order to store and access data, but information is not the only byproduct of this process. We also get large amounts of heat.

Heat is a Terrible Thing to Waste

As it turns out, a huge portion of the power that data centers consume is just used to regulate temperature (which really means taking heat from one place and moving it somewhere else). Servers have to be cooled constantly with all of that hot air being pumped out into the open range of sparsely populated America. This seems a bit foolish given that we spend a large amount of energy to produce heat. Instead of throwing it away, we should be utilizing it.

Heat is often a squandered resource despite how integral it is to how our society functions. One place that is always using some is our homes. Sure, we spend some time and energy pushing it out in warmer climates, but even then we need it to heat our water for things like bathing, dishwashing and laundry. In fact most of us use around 18% of all the energy in our house to heating water alone. If you throw in space heating, it's closer to 63% (mind you, that's heat we're paying to produce).

If homes were nearby then they could provide great heat sinks for data centers, but the opportunity fades the farther away they are from civilization. However, if brownstones, apartments and condos were only a block away then the rising heat could either be siphoned off to heat homes or transferred into water for use. Not for nothing either, my building manager tells me that the two sister buildings of our co-op use approximately 32,000 dekatherms (or 32 billion Btu's) of #6 heating oil a year in order to run the boilers for hot water and heating–and that is just two buildings.  That sounds like a lot and it is a lot, being the energy equivalent of 278,260 gallons of gasoline or 9.3 million kwh of electricity (enough to power about 780 American homes). *One could ask, how does heating two apartment building use the electricity load of 780 individual homes? Well it's because most of the energy we use is not in the form of electricity.

Urban Data

It's true that building a tower in the middle of the downtown to be filled with floors of servers probably isn't equitable. The higher costs of building such a structure in the city could swiftly move the project out of feasibility. In many cities, the amount of square footage you can construct above the ground is strictly regulated by zoning laws, making it a hard case to sacrifice valuable space could earn more money as residential square footage.

While zoning may draw the line at how far you can build up, most often no one cares how much you build down. It is not uncommon in New York to have two, three, four or even five "cellar" (not to be confused with "basement") stories below grade for anything from retail space, to parking or storage. There is no reason why some of this couldn't be carved out for server farms.

The upsides could be that buildings get rent payers for what is otherwise relatively worthless space. On the flip side, internet companies would be saved the headache, cost and liability of having more property, plant and equipment on their balance sheets. The building could spend less money producing heat while the data center could spend less getting rid of it. All around, we would only end up using energy to produce heat once. If we wanted to sweeten the deal a little more, we could begin to discourage sprawl and promote urban density by taxing greenfield development, using the proceeds to subsidize infill development.

Mixed use planning for buildings continue to become more applicable to providing more people with a wider array of services that can benefit from the others' proximity. As the foundation of a growing digital system, data centers can play a more active role as an infrastructural component, beyond storing 1's and 0's.

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