Without a carbon tax or anything that penalizes fossil fuel consumption, the federal government has little ability to influence how much energy a data center uses. But it is trying.
In a blog post late Tuesday, the White House announced that 19 data centers have agreed to join a voluntary program to become 20% more energy efficient by 2020.
There was a reason for the lack of fanfare: The list was padded by the government.
This is a list that could have been populated with thousands of data centers, which collectively used 100 billion kWh last year -- about 2% of U.S. electric use.
But of the 19 data center entities on the list, 12 are government related, including some very large ones from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.
How did the government set its 20% goal for data centers, and is it aiming too high, or too low? It may be the latter, according to one group.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a recent report said it believes a 40% reduction in energy use -- representing only half of what is technically possible -- could be accomplished.
Pierre Delforge, director of the NRDC's high-tech sector on energy efficiency, said the White House initiative is a step in the right direction, with a 20% energy use reduction "readily achievable."
"However, much more can and needs to be done to offset the rapid growth in data center energy consumption," said Delforge. He believes the government "should convene data center industry and efficiency advocates to develop metrics that can drive higher utilization throughout the market.
"Voluntary initiatives like this one are an important part of the solution, but they are not sufficient," said Delforge.
Among the private sector firms that that did sign up are eBay, Home Depot, Digital Realty and CoreSite Colocation Realty Corp.
Staples is also on the list. Bob Valair, director of energy and environmental management at the retailer, said the government's effort is a good idea, explaining that Staples joined because it is already heavily involved in other government efficiency programs, including Energy Star.
Staples has a strong sustainability model that emphasizes green products, cutting waste and using renewable energy, said Valair. The company is also aware of its power consumption, and has dashboards and metrics on energy usage in its stores and data centers. "We know exactly how (electricity) is being used," said Valair.
Valair has another edge in managing energy use: a strong relationship with IT.
About four years ago, one of the retailer's data centers lost power when a major utility line was cut. But the UPS system and generators, which Valair has responsibility for, worked as expected; operations weren't affected. Though it took a week to repair the line, the experience help build trust between facilities and IT management.
That, in turn, led to broader discussions on improving efficiency. "That was the thing that allowed [us] to start the process," he said.
Data center temperatures were raised, equipment consolidated and the life expectancy of the centers extended, said Valair. Today, facilities, IT and finance managers at Staples discuss energy goals routinely, he said.
The list of participating data center users in the government's program will likely grow. It is part of a program called the President's Better Buildings Challenge, which is aimed at improving the efficiency of commercial, industrial and multi-family residential buildings. With this week's announcement, the program expanded to include data centers.