This is the third of four(!) presentations I delivered at an EUCI data center forum in December in San Francisco, and I've just committed to attend their second conference on this subject in Philadelphia in June (details posted when available).
With a mixed audience of data center developers, utilities, and consultants, it was an interesting place to deliver some forthright commentary on the environmental consequences of siting large data center developments: Download EUCI Presentation 3
On one hand, utilities like attracting these loads, but don't necessarily like to reveal the carbon content of their power. On the other side, where a utility-scale data center is located is the single most important criteria for the environmental impact of the facility, and seeking cheap rates usually means sourcing dirtier power.
On the carbon content point, I noted in the presentation that utilities are pretty lax in reporting the sources for their power. In California, there was a pretty good mandatory framework imposed by the state that has unfortunately been watered down somewhat (utilities can put all of their purchased power in an "other" category, making an often large chunk of their portfolio invisible to consumers).
The other key issue is that the carbon content varies utility-by-utility, even in the same geographical region. I charted California utilities in a white paper (link to your left) and found that municipal providers in California are often providing much dirtier power supplies than the investor-owned utilities.
The cheaper-is-dirtier paradigm doesn't hold in all cases. I cite the Pacific Northwest where some data center operators have been able to get utility power almost wholly reliant on large hydroelectric plants at very low rates, and the surprising amounts of nuclear and more recently even renewables in parts of the country like Virginia where coal has always been king.
My message to data center operators considering locations for new developments is to be sure they know what they are getting from the local utility, and to consider the risks of price increases going forward. States are imposing renewable energy requirments that will lead to greater rate impacts in areas of the country with low use of renewables, compared to other states that are meeting established targets.
For both audiences, I pointed out that regulators and NGOs like Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council are watching, as well as the mainstream press, a la the series of articles published recently by the New York Times.