This article was originally published on PAGE by Lance Brown.

Later today in Destin, Florida, PACE will present to utility communicators from across the country on growing trends in the data sector and how that affects electricity demand. The title of today’s presentation is ‘How Green is the Internet?’

“The rise of cloud computing and the need for more servers has led to an incredible growth in data centers around the world,” explains PACE Executive DIrector Lance Brown. “These data centers require vast amounts of electricity, and looking at where these installations are being located reveals a great deal.”

Data centers around the globe now number in the tens of thousands, with a single data center drawing as much power as a medium-sized town. From search engines to data processing to social networking, the data that flows through servers in data centers worldwide, as well as the power that demands, is truly staggering. Estimates are that data centers now account for 2% of all global electricity use. That’s more than 30 billion watts of power, or roughly the output of thirty nuclear power units, a third of the U.S. nuclear fleet. While figures from the early years of server use are less than reliable, experts estimate the global energy use from data centers has at least quadrupled since the year 2000.

But how efficient are these centers? If a September 2012 investigation by the New York Times is any clue, not very. According to the report, “data centers can waste 90 percent or more of the electricity they take off the grid.” The centers also tend to use diesel generators to guard against power failures. Taken together, those factors call into question the data industry’s reputation as clean.

In response to the increased demand for power, data-driven giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple continue to search for areas of the U.S. that offer affordable, highly reliable power. Their search has led them to places like North Carolina, a state that has continued to rely on traditional forms of power.

“You need to be able to offer electricity at the price of 4 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt hour before the data center operators will even talk to you,” explained Duke Energy Spokesperson Thomas Williams in 2012, after Apple, Facebook, and Google all decided to locate data centers in North Carolina. “Part of the reason why the power is so cheap in North Carolina is because the electricity mix is 61 percent from coal, 31 percent from nuclear, and only 4 percent from clean power. Coal and nuclear are some of the cheapest forms of electricity generation.”

“There is a lesson to be learned from the data center experience: no matter how the economy changes, affordable and reliable power will run it,” says Brown. “Whether a company is making rolled steel or storing user-generated videos, jobs will depend on our nation’s ability to keep power prices low and electrons flowing.”

That lesson makes it all the more important for federal and state regulators to make smart choices about how to balance environmental regulation with the need to maintain a diverse set of energy choices.