Data center operators regularly monitor energy usage and efficiency but have not traditionally tracked their carbon footprint. In an industry that is experiencing rapid growth, energy efficiency is a top priority to improve the bottom line. Data centers use 10 to 50 times the energy per square foot of floor space than a commercial office building. Some IT sectors such as social media and crypto currency are examples of the ever-increasing demand. Media streaming is a mega-consumer, with a two and half hour HD movie consuming 1 kWh of energy and the new 4k (Ultra HD) movie tripling that demand.
The increasing demand is outstripping the energy saved from applied energy efficiency measures, which elevates the concern over carbon emissions. With data centers accounting for 2% of the total U.S. electricity consumption, stakeholders are reviewing ways that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions without disruption to their operations. Switching to renewable energy would be a solution but dependability causes data center operators to hesitate.
Each renewable source has its benefits and detriments. Here’s a quick review of some renewable energy sources for consideration as the zero-carbon discussion continues.
The fact that solar production only happens during daylight impacts the reliability for data centers where one minute of downtown can cost millions of dollars. The size of a solar installation large enough to power a data center could be a discouraging factor, as well. The operation of a solar installation costs little after the initial investment but battery storage is still a costly back up required for non-daylight hours. Storage technology is developing and could be an excellent consideration in the near future.
Utilities are making significant investments in solar energy production making procuring energy from solar sources more widely available. Energy procurement consultants can assist in strategic decision-making and successful negotiation. As energy procurement specialists, Albireo Energy manages bulk buying groups that can provide lower renewable energy costs to members. While the use of these energy credits and power purchase agreements can increase solar energy as a source for data centers, it is likely that it will not be cost effective as a primary or stand-alone energy source until on-site battery storage becomes viable.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) states that the potential U.S. energy production that is possible from wind is huge, about nine times the current total U.S. electricity consumption. Not considering sensitive environmental land spaces or incompatible land-use areas, most of this wind potential comes from the windy central regions of the country. There is greater potential when offshore sites are considered.
Technology is advancing quickly in wind power, and with the use of larger turbines, price per megawatt produced has fallen about 40% since 2017. Utilities plan to increase the wind power in their grids. As pricing declines, wind power can become an excellent source of power for data centers within a few years.
Geothermal energy is the least-used energy source in the U.S. despite the virtually unlimited supply. The initial investment to build a geothermal power plant is high, but operating costs are much lower than other sources. Google has announced that they will be working together with Fervo Energy to develop a geothermal energy power plant to power their data center activities in Nevada. Google’s zero carbon goal of operating 24/7 on clean energy by 2030 is extremely ambitious. But the search giant will lead the research and development of geothermal power with this effort which can benefit the industry overall.
Brightcore Energy, a New York-based clean energy as a service provider, has developed a new technology for delivering a ground source geothermal system called UrbanGeo. This drilling technology offers new construction and retrofit solutions in urban environments with Inclined Borehole Thermal Energy Storage (BTES), optimizing renewable heating & cooling. BTES allows drilling in spaces not accessible by traditional drilling rigs. It also bores well loops on an angle so that the surface area required is smaller and the contact with thermal mass is larger. This is a solution that can benefit qualifying existing data centers.
Geothermal energy is always available and an unlimited carbon-free energy source. With budding geothermal technology and robust funding opportunities, this energy source can be an extremely feasible alternative for data centers to achieve sustainability goals.
Data Center Sustainability
In a white paper, Getting to Green, Paul Gillin recommends that data center operators move cautiously and with care into alternative energy sources. Hyperscalers that have the resources to research and implement new technologies are giving themselves a decade to achieve their goals. Their efforts can inform successful strategies incorporating new technologies. Data center stakeholders can partner with expert energy consultants to devise a customized carbon-zero plan that will provide the highest economical and sustainable results. With consumers stating that they would purchase services or products from companies with environmental sustainability, data centers need to turn their attention to creating solutions to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions.
The first steps in creating a zero-carbon plan is to partner with an expert energy consultant. Albireo Energy has the depth and experience to provide data centers with successful solutions. Albireo knows data centers, having completed hundreds of sustainable projects totaling over 6.1 GW/24M square feet of white space. Albireo has a global footprint and extensive product experience. Albireo’s highly trained team will deliver integrated solutions for your portfolio to provide comprehensive analytics and optimize operations to meet corporate energy efficiency goals.