The New York Times is two parts into a five-part series assessing the impact of the internet on our environment — specifically, the cloud, the facilities and companies that store data and serve up sites and apps. Part one, “Power, Pollution and the Internet,” focuses on the data centers that run servers 24 hours a day, using diesel generators as backup in the event of a power failure. Part two, “Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle,” published today, focuses on one such facility owned by Microsoft that has led to power issues in both the electric and political senses.

The first two installments have done a good job of raising an important issue: A digital world is predicated on electricity. Electrons can’t flip bits if they don’t flow. What reporter James Glanz aims to do is articulate the extent of that electron flow. Oh, and while he’s at it, critique the industry.

Some of the main points raised by Glanz.

  • “Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, whatever the demand. As a result, data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they pull off the grid, The Times found.”
  • “Energy efficiency varies widely from company to company. But at the request of The Times, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed energy use by data centers and found that, on average, they were using only 6 percent to 12 percent of the electricity powering their servers to perform computations.”
  • “To guard against a power failure, they further rely on banks of generators that emit diesel exhaust. The pollution from data centers has increasingly been cited by the authorities for violating clean air regulations, documents show.”
  • “Nationwide, data centers used about 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010, or roughly 2 percent of all electricity used in the country that year …”

The series (the first piece in particular) includes odd asides dinging tech companies. Like this, for example.

Improving or even assessing the field is complicated by the secretive nature of an industry that is largely built around accessing other people’s personal data.

It’s a strange point to raise in the middle of an article about power consumption, perhaps revealing the reporter’s bias against the industry, regardless of what the data shows.

The series has already prompted some detailed critiques — and not only from the tech industry.

Here’s Dan Woods, at Forbes.com:

The biggest problem with [the] story is the confusion of “the Internet Industry”, which is not really clearly defined in the article, and the world of Information Technology (IT), that is the use of technology by businesses. The subtitle of the story, “Industry Wastes Vasts Amounts of Electricity, Belying Image”, implies that “The Internet” is somehow projecting a green image but actually is wasting power. …

The utilization rates of servers in data centers is cited as between 7 and 12 percent. Nowhere is it pointed out that this statistic is derived from IT data centers, not from the state of the art data centers run by the Internet companies. Huan Liu based on an external model, estimates Amazon’s EC2 utilization at 7 to 25 percent. But Amazon, Facebook, and Google, don’t report their utilization rates. It is not accurate to make this implied association.

In other words, the article uses data about traditional companies’ data centers to make sweeping generalizations about internet companies’ energy use.

And Tim Carmody at The Verge:

But the reason servers aren’t using 100% of their energy for computation, and server farms aren’t constantly running at the limits of their capacity, isn’t because (as the Uptime Institute’s Bruce Taylor tells the Times) “if you tell somebody they can’t access YouTube or download from Netflix, they’ll tell you it’s a God-given right.” It’s because that infrastructure powers our businesses, our schools, our police and fire stations, our banks and stock exchanges, and yes, our media. It’s because those zippy data transfers help drive our economy, in the same way that the boom in turnpikes, canals, and railroads did 200 years ago. It’s because the principle and policy of net neutrality doesn’t distinguish between the goofy and the life-saving. It’s because the failure of the internet, like the collapse of a bridge, can lead to genuine disasters.

Complaining that a server is only using 10 percent of its electricity on computing is like complaining that only ten percent of the human brain’s neurons are firing at any given time. It’s forgetting that a sharp spike in that electrical activity usually causes a seizure.

(Also see “a lot of lead bullets: a response to the new york times article on data center efficiency,” a 5,000-word post that critiques a number of specific points, and the Times’ own “Room for Debate” discussion.)

The following excerpt from the first article clearly demonstrates its flaws; the excerpt directly follows Glanz’s point about data centers using 76 billion kilowatt-hours in 2010.

The industry has long argued that computerizing business transactions and everyday tasks like banking and reading library books has the net effect of saving energy and resources. But the paper industry, which some predicted would be replaced by the computer age, consumed 67 billion kilowatt-hours from the grid in 2010, according to Census Bureau figures reviewed by the Electric Power Research Institute for The Times.

So, the paper industry used slightly less energy than the internet? I find that diminishes the perceived impact of the internet. It only uses 13 percent more energy than the paper industry?

What’s the context for many of the problems raised? When Glanz faults the use of diesel generators as backup power sources, what does that pollution compare to? Is it worse than highway traffic? Worse than pollution from other industries? Worse than pollution from other industries that use backup diesel generators?

And Glanz completely ignores existing efforts to improve efficiency and make data centers more green. Syracuse University has a green data center, as does IBM in Poughkeepsie, as does the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Apple recently built a cloud-computing facility in North Carolina that features an enormous field of solar panels. Glanz also neglects to mention campaigns by environmental organizations (like Greenpeace) that are pushing tech companies to decrease their use of fossil fuels.

There are still three parts of the series to come. It’s possible that later stories will better explain the context for Glanz’s findings and/or existing efforts to reduce power consumption.

But it’s a disservice to simply argue that the internet uses a lot of power in a mix of other critiques. It certainly does! But power use isn’t inherently bad. Glanz owes the reader — particularly a reader of only one part of his series — a broader picture of what that power use means in the context of an evolving society. What isn’t needed is a presumption of guilt.