Clouds in place: an environmental economic geography of data centers

Authors: Jerry Patchell*, Divisions of Social Science, Environment and Sustainability, Public Policy, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Topics: Economic Geography, Energy, Environment
Keywords: data centres, industrial location, renewable energy
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Regent, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Data centers are the engines of the digital economy, performing trillions of processing for the Internet and giving substance to the cloud. They are the hardware that deals with all the instructions that billions of people send off to the Internet to be dealt with somewhere. In other words, data centers are the places of the cloud. Data centers remind industrial geographers that conventional location factors remain important to the digital economy and that locations will compete to attract these facilities. Yet, they bring new location factors into consideration and the number of jobs, taxes and other economic benefits provided by data centers bear little comparison to the industrial location impacts of the Fordist era. Perhaps the greatest impact from this new entry onto the economic landscape is the degree to which environmental issues are not only influencing data center location decisions, but are also driving environmental transitions at the local, regional, national and indeed international levels. In this paper, we explore this new environmental economic geography. We begin by describing data centers and structure of the industry. We then explain the factors for site selection, including conventional factors, latency as an industry specific factor and environmental factors. The discussion then turns to the evolving dynamic between these factors and how the leading data center service providers, particularly the leaders of cloud computing are dramatically transforming energy provision for their data centers. In the process these leading firms may be hastening a renewable and multi-scalar energy transition.

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