Water-Powered Computers

Cloud computing makes believe that physical location is irrelevant. Your data and applications can all live somewhere on the Internet, accessible to you anywhere, anytime–as long as you have a network connection. But the illusion of spatial irrelevancy is belied by the placement of some data centers in very particular geographic locations indeed.

In addition to bandwidth, data centers need electricity. Lots of it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that U.S. servers and data centers were responsible for a total of 1.5 percent of America’s electricity consumption in 2006 (about 61 billion kilowatt-hours), at a cost of $4.5 billion, and that their consumption will double by 2011. Not surprisingly, data-center owners have searched out sources of cheap electricity in the hydroelectric dams that dot the Rockies and the Northwest. Washington and Oregon, America’s top two hydroelectric-­producing states, have electricity costs 20 to 30 percent lower than the national average. As a result, small towns in places like the Columbia River basin (above) are enjoying a data-center gold rush, often helped by local authorities who are willing to provide owners with fiber-optic connections to the rest of the world.

Credit: Arthur Mount

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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