Energy, Climate, Water & Geophysical Risk All Play Roles In North American Data Center Siting

Energy, climate, water and/or geophysical safety can be drivers for locations across North America. We periodically update this post with new developments. The most recent is about a LinkedIn data center. You can learn about location drivers in other regions in our related article.


Linkedin's data center in Portland, Oregon, is one of the latest datacenter's to be recognized for taking advantage of hydropower in America's Pacific Northwest. The facility received Uptime Institute's Efficient IT (EIT) Stamp of Approval in November 2016. The Institute noted, "LinkedIn's Portland data center is powered with low-carbon power sourced from the Bonneville Power Administration, one of the largest suppliers of hydroelectric power in the U.S. To further optimize efficiency, in order to meet a dynamic and energy dense load profile, LinkedIn chose an innovative cooling design element that adjusts to the variable heat load. LinkedIn's Portland data center also features advanced monitoring for maximized environmental control."

The United States' Columbia River Valley became a popular location for mega data centers due to its inexpensive and low-carbon hydroelectricity, its climate for 'free air' cooling, and its fiber optic infrastructure. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, Ask, Intuit, and even the National Security Agency (NSA) have facilities there. One criticism of this location is that while massive hydroelectric projects like these do yield energy with a low carbon footprint, other environmental impacts make the energy arguably not so 'green'. Another is that these companies are benefiting from large energy consumption subsidized by taxpayers at prices well below the US average.

The NSA's massive new Utah data center, is the agency's second in that state. Utah's low electricity costs as cited as a reason for locating there. The Institute for Energy Research noted that this low cost comes at an environmental price, "Utah benefits from some of the most affordable electricity prices in the nation. Coal provides more than 80 percent of the state’s electricity, which contributes to the state’s low prices because coal is the most affordable energy resource."

Microsoft selected Wyoming for its Data Plant project in 2012. "Wyoming's natural energy resources include coal, oil, and natural gas. Given its increasing need for renewable energy sources, Wyoming has been investing in advanced energy technologies that include both renewable and clean carbon conversion processes. The state and its local organizations have been very proactive in partnering with companies like Microsoft and FuelCell Energy to research and develop methods that will help provide sustainable resources for their energy portfolio. In addition, Wyoming's industries will also be able to benefit from the clean CO2 that is produced from this Data Plant. Wyoming has a large demand for clean CO2 and today a CO2 pipeline intersects the state with expansion projects currently in planning."

Data center operators are also on the hunt for locations with under-utilized power infrastructures. The New York Times reported in August 2016, "'A lot of this stuff is put in rural parts of the country that used to be part of a manufacturing economy' that has gone overseas, said Bill Coughran, a partner at the venture investment firm Sequoia Capital who ran much of Google’s big engineering for eight years. 'Textiles and furniture created a big power grid in the south. Then those jobs went away.'" We noted a similar situation in China where Bitcoin miners seek out over-built energy infrastructure in remote areas.


Canada took a unique look at cold locations in 2011 with a UCSD/McGill "conceptual design" that combines evaporative free cooling with "seasonal ice storage" to obtain a 1.06 PUE. Proponents claim "potential cost savings of 74% and energy savings of 47% through facility changes alone!" Bill St. Arnaud cautions, "…the high costs of telecom in Canada, because of foreign ownership restrictions, undermines the business case for relocating US data centers to this country. Telecom costs in Canada are 8 to 10 times higher than they are in the US. Low cost, ultra high bandwidth connectivity is essential for attracting data centers and can be as important, if not more important than the cost of energy."

Other US regions are touting their advantages. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011, "In Wyoming, the chilly winters and mild summers mean ambient air can be used to cool servers up to nine months of the year, said Jeff McSchooler, vice president of EchoStar Broadcasting. After visiting more than 50 potential sites nationwide, the satellite TV company decided last summer to build a 77,000-square-foot data center in Cheyenne, where even at the height of summer the temperature rarely creeps above 82 degrees." There were other inducements, "promising cheap energy for data centers' enormous power needs [and] the Wyoming legislature recently exempted most data-center software and equipment from sales taxes and appropriated $15 million for infrastructure improvements to potential data-center sites." The article notes, "Other states offer similar advantages. FedEx, for instance, calculates that the data center it opened last month in Colorado Springs, Colo., will be able to keep the cooling systems offline more than 5,000 hours a year."

Water offered information and pictures in 2013 about Apple's new facility outside Reno, Nevada. "Despite appearing to be bone dry, the site is actually supplied with underground sources that flow in from the north, but are held from running into the [Truckee] river by impermeable layers of rock. This provides plenty of water that meets the data center's high standards, ranging from low particulate counts to a balanced pH." Another location advantage is that the site is "rated by the Department of Homeland Security as within America's largest 'Safety Zone,' given that it is 'minimally seismically active,' experiences little threat from tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, or ice storms, and is located far away from any nuclear power plants." No word on the long-term impact on area aquifers.

Geophysical safety

Seismic safety, hydro power, and cool climate are all promoted by CenturyLink as advantages of its new Moses Lake, Washington (USA) data center. "The facility's electricity is supplied, in part, by hydroelectric generators powered by the nearby Columbia River. The central Washington climate also allows significant use of free-air cooling, driving some of the lowest power usage effectiveness (PUE) figures in the data center industry...The site also has a seismic rating of 2B, the lowest rating in the western United States, making it a key location for disaster recovery solutions."

The Data Centre Risk Index 2012 report "…ranks countries according to the risks likely to affect the successful operation of a data centre, risk factors such as energy costs, connectivity…the likelihood of natural disasters or political instability…energy security and education…" "The U.S. retains its first place ranking and is considered the lowest risk location for building and operating a data centre in the world. It holds top position for international bandwidth and performs well in the other tier 1 risk categories as well as having the highest percentage of its population completing tertiary education. Canada remains in the top five low risk locations."