Canadian researchers hope to stem the global IT industry's rampant output of greenhouse gas emissions by perfecting a way to host the Internet's content purely on green power.
And if their experiment succeeds, Canada could essentially become the world's largest Internet server - powered with almost no carbon footprint - and help reduce one of the most significant, growing sources of pollution.
The GreenStar Network is a two-year project funded by the Canadian Advanced Network and Research for Industry and Education, which aims to address the IT industry's incessant energy consumption. It's estimated that two to eight per cent of the world's energy consumption is drained by computers and the IT field, and the industry's explosive growth may propel it to a 20 per cent share in some countries by 2020.
"Two or three per cent is about the same as the aviation industry so a lot of people say, 'What's the big deal?' The problem is it's growing, the rate of growth for the IT industry is six per cent per year and that's because of all the new applications and all the new toys we have," said Bill Arnaud, former chief research officer for CANARIE and now a green IT consultant.
Worse, much of that IT energy usage is coming from the dirtiest energy source, coal-fired plants, which necessitates an urgent shift to greening the industry, said Mr. Arnaud.
The researchers behind the GreenStar project are working on a concept that would see interconnected data centers stationed across the country and powered solely by green energy. A main knock against renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power is that they're intermittent and not reliable enough to power applications that need a steady supply of power. But the GreenStar concept would allow data to be beamed across the network to wherever renewable sources are available, so even if wind isn't blowing in one part of the country, it likely would be elsewhere. Other always-on hydroelectric servers would also be available.
The two-year project will be small but is being designed to identify how the concept could be scaled in a big way, so even the world's largest websites could be reliably hosted almost carbon-free and without interruption. And the researchers also hope to devise a formula that would be used in carbon markets, so companies in jurisdictions powered by coal could get carbon credits for hosting their data in Canada.
Mr. Arnaud said there's already some interest in green IT solutions but the demand will ramp up significantly when carbon pricing becomes a widespread - and expensive - reality.
"Eventually it will happen, it may not be this year, it may be a couple years, but the U.S. will have to pass some sort of cost or tax on carbon, either through a direct carbon tax or through a cap-and-trade bill," Mr. Arnaud said.
"That, depending on which study you read and how it's administered, could triple the price of electricity if it's generated by coal.
"This is where Canada, given proximity to the U.S. market and its abundance of clean power, is in an ideal position to provide solutions for these companies."
While the market for green services is still relatively small, there are some motivated companies staking a claim in the space. In 2007, Google set out to be completely carbon neutral, and this month announced a 20-year deal to acquire 114 megawatts of wind power in Iowa, enough to power several data centers.
Canadian company RackForce, based in Kelowna, B.C., is partnering in the GreenStar Network and is already offering green hosting services. In 2008, the company signed a deal with IBM to build a $75-million green data centre powered by hydroelectric energy, which it bills as one of the most environmentally-friendly in the world. It has an estimated carbon footprint about 50 times smaller than its coal-powered equivalent, said company co-founder and vice-president Brian Fry.
Mr. Fry estimates only about 10 per cent of his business currently comes from companies that are serious about going green, and says it will likely take a real fiscal incentive to drive more change.
"You're either going to reward someone for going green or you're going to penalize them for not going green, it's one of the two," he said.
He imagines a future where Canada could take as much as 30 to 40 per cent of the world's web hosting business if cap-and-trade and carbon pricing takes off.
"That sounds extreme but there's more things at play here than just the power source - the other part that is really key is the colder climates," he said, and explained that a large part of the IT world's energy consumption is associated with cooling, to keep computers from overheating and shutting down.
Canada - and other cold climate countries - have the upper hand since it's easier to keep computer rooms at the right temperature when the local climate isn't sweltering.
"We can now implement cooling systems that use outside air and so the Canadian climate is by far one of the best for that," Mr. Fry said.
He applauded the GreenStar project and said it has the potential to be huge.
"The GreenStar project is one of those landmark projects that could make the difference because it's not just intended to happen in Canada, it's designed to go into the U.S., there's European partners involved as well."