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Chicago: 'Greenest' Data Center Location?

Chicago and other mature data center markets do well in an assessment of total carbon output by local utilities.

Is Chicago the most environmentally-friendly location for a data center? That's the conclusion of a study by Base Partners and the engineering firm Glumac, which is detailed today at ComputerWorld. The survey used specs for a 135,000 square foot data center and evaluated the cost and carbon output of local utilities in prominent data center markets. The carbon production metric considered how the local utility generated its power and weighted the overall environmental impact.

The lowest cost location was Quincy, Washington, which has attracted numerous data center projects with its cheap hydro power. The "winner" for lowest overall carbon impact was Chicago, with Quincy close behind. The next five cities in the rankings are all established data center hubs: San Jose, Santa Clara and El Segundo in California, the state of New Jersey, and Austin, Texas. Placing last was San Antonio, Texas, which has been a hot spot for recent data center development.

San Jose, El Segundo and New Jersey are all among the most expensive power markets. The environmentally-friendly nature of their energy profile isn't likely to impact their attractiveness as data center destinations, as all are aleady well populated with mission-critical facilities.

But the "green factor" could be more significant in site location decisions for companies eyeing Texas locations. Texas has its own pwoer grid, which has made it a popular site for new data centers. Both Austin and San Antonio are growth markets that are competing for major projects, and have similar power cost profiles.

Will a location's carbon profile really be a factor in site location decisions? It's clear that companies cultivating a public image as being environmentally friendly are becoming more aware of these issues. One example is Google's recent announcement of its Council Bluffs, Iowa data center project. The local utility, MidAmerican Energy, is a leader in wind-based power generation, but also has coal-fired plants. Which got noticed? Several media outlets and blogs contrasted Google's use of coal-driven energy with the company's pledge to be carbon-neutral by the end of 2007.

Cost and workforce issues will continue to be the major drivers in data center site location decisions. But for companies focused on green PR, a site's carbon profile could loom as a tiebreaker in choosing between locations.