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How to Grow Green Power for More Sustainable Data Centers

By: Kaylie Gyarmathy on October 3, 2018

Data centers consume somewhere between two and three percent of all electricity generated in developed countries. With more data centers being built every year to meet the massive demands of cloud computing and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, facilities are searching for ways to meet their power needs using renewable energy sources for better data center sustainability.

The market for renewable energy has exploded over the last decade, going from about 9 percent of the US energy mix in 2008 to 18 percent in 2018. Some of this growth has been driven by regulatory incentives, but the majority of the growth is being dictated by market forces. Consumers are increasingly pressuring organizations to “go green,” and environmental consciousness has proven to be a competitive advantage for companies that embrace sustainable energy policies. The big tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft may be leading the way, but even more traditional corporations are following their lead, with Wal-Mart  announcing that it wants to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable source by 2025 and Anheuser-Busch aiming to reach 100 percent by the same year. Even General Motors has plans to be completely green by 2050.

With the massive push toward sustainability not showing any signs of letting up, data centers need to consider how they can incorporate renewable energy into their power strategy. Generally speaking, this means looking at two very different options: generating green power onsite or purchasing it from offsite producers.

Onsite Green Power

Perhaps the most direct method of improving energy sustainability in data centers is to incorporate onsite green power production. From solar panels on the rooftops to fuel cell-powered servers, data centers have experimented with a variety of options to meet some of their own power demands while also committing to renewable energy. While these approaches are rarely sufficient to provide facilities with all of their power needs, they do provide the added benefit of load balancing and reliability. Since onsite power sources typically run parallel to the existing utility grid, they can help relieve much of the stress on local infrastructure, which is especially valuable in regions of the country with aging or overburdened utilities.

Data centers experimenting with their own energy production may soon be able to replace their diesel-powered backup generators and UPS systems, which would significantly reduce costs. Big players in the hyperscale market are even more ambitious. Microsoft recently partnered with the state of Washington to develop fuel-cell technology that could eventually provide an independent clean power source that would allow their sustainable data centers to unplug from the local power grid completely. The corporate giant estimates that these self-sustaining facilities could reduce rack installation cost by 10 percent and operational costs by as much as 21 percent.

Some data centers have experimented with solar energy and wind power, although this technology has proven less successful than fuel cells because it takes a large installation of solar panels or turbines to produce enough energy to provide even a portion of a facility’s power needs. One of the more innovative ideas, however, has been the use of geothermal power and cooling systems. While there are relatively few locations that are capable of harnessing geothermal power, geothermal “bore fields” have been tested in data centers in Iowa and Nebraska to drastically reduce the high energy consumption of cooling equipment.

Offsite Green Power

While experiments in onsite green power production grab most of the headlines, the truth of the matter is that most organizations are pursuing sustainable data center solutions through mundane means. That means buying renewable energy from existing power utilities.

And here’s where things get a little complicated…

When companies like Apple and Google proclaim they’re powered by 100% renewable energy, they don’t necessarily mean all of their power comes from vast fields of solar panels and wind turbines (although Apple has done better than most in this respect). The electricity flowing into their facilities comes from the same power grid that their neighbors use. There is no difference between electricity generated by a wind turbine and electricity produced by burning coal. It all feeds into the same power grid, regardless of its origin, and it all gets consumed the same way.

What companies mean when they tout being completely green is that they’ve paid for the same amount of renewable energy as electricity they’ve consumed in the form of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs). Each certificate represents a single megawatt of green power, allowing companies to “prove” that each megawatt of power they consumed can be traced back to a megawatt of renewable energy. Since RECs can be purchased from anyone who produces green power and are not tied to any specific location, they allow companies to support renewable energy producers even if they’re operating in areas where no such energy is available. This is especially valuable for data centers located in markets with limited options for meeting their power needs. While RECs are used throughout North America, other global markets utilize similar market-based systems to encourage the production of green energy.

Data centers can also use Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) to meet their renewable energy standards. These contracts have traditionally been utilized by utility companies to purchase green power from renewable energy facilities, but some states allow non-utility purchasers to use them as well. While PPAs do not require a data center to actually use the power they purchase, most of them contract with producers who supply energy to the data center’s local power grid.

With green power becoming more accessible than ever before and market forces pushing companies to seek more sustainable energy solutions, data centers can’t afford to stand by and wait for the renewables industry to mature. Customers are demanding green power now, and data centers that can’t provide assurances that they’re doing everything in their power to incorporate renewable energy into their operations will miss out on a key differentiator. Whether through developing onsite energy solutions or supporting offsite production, data centers can take an active step in helping to promote the development of this growing industry.

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