Keeping Data Centers Self-Sufficient Sustainably

Data centers must have the capability to operate even if power grids are down- meaning that on-site power generation is crucial. Image Credit: Forbes

The world is burning up feverishly through fossil fuel use, hydrogen usage to power data centers aren’t going to be widely available anytime soon and operators are under increasing pressure to achieve greener, cleaner standards. Renewable energy is one of those glaringly ‘obvious’ solutions to the problem- after all, sunlight, wind and geothermal energy are infinite sources, so why aren’t all facilities running on renewable on-site power generation?

From a holistic perspective, data centers that generate independent power on site enjoy benefits such as improved energy efficiency and increased uptime, as the overall environment is more controlled and measured. The reality is that even in today’s world energy grids go through fluctuations, resulting in possible downtimes- a luxury that operators cannot afford. On-site power generation therefore represents a reliable solution- backup or otherwise. 

Bright Ideas

Renewable energy often arrives in three forms; solar, wind and geothermal. Of the three, solar is the most widely used, with giants such as Google and Facebook amongst operators favouring such an approach. In a climate like Southeast Asia where sunshine is present nearly year-round, solar power remains the dominant option of on-site renewable energy, due to its affordability in operation beyond installation. Two decades ago, this argument would have been on the losing end; the cost of one solar-generated watt was $11 U.S. dollars in 2000, as compared to $2.25 U.S. dollars in 2020. 

Despite this, most facilities still run on-site solar energy either as a backup or as part of a wider system, as the quantity of solar cells needed to power a single data center is substantial and space-hogging. Solar farms require between five and ten acres per megawatt (MW) of capacity- not a small area of space by any mile.

Not Hot Air 

When it comes to the question of using wind energy, the answer isn’t as straightforward. Firstly, sourcing for consistent wind energy requires specific geographic placing of wind turbines; operators aren’t able to erect a couple of turbines in a data center’s backyard and happily call it a day. As such, offshore wind farms usually source out their services to data centers, with a reported levelised cost of just over $30 U.S. dollars per megawatt-hour for new projects- which is technically cheaper than conventional energy sources. Even more encouraging is the speed of wind-harnessing technology, where average capacity levels have grown by 40 per cent in the past five years while costs of construction have fallen by the same percentage. The negatives of wind-powered on-site energy come in the form of a lack of consistency; off-shore wind farm or not. Similarly, the wind can to an extent be depended on as a source of backup energy, but not yet as a sole source of power.

Cracking Open A Hot.. One?

Geothermal energy is a bit of a wild card for the industry; it’s barely been used, it holds great potential, is expensive in the short term and cheap in the long run. Unlike solar and wind energy, geothermal power, once tapped, is infinitely consistent. It’s also free of geographic constraints; just pick the right spot, start drilling and huzzah, stick a turbine in there and you get clean energy year-round. The problem with geothermal energy is the risk; digging into the earth’s surface is dicey not only due to their notorious link to earthquakes, but also because the initial investment of a geothermal well is expensive, labour-inducing and potentially harmful to the environment. Operators have begun to slowly explore the idea as a source for renewable energy, but industry-wide implementation will take years of research, development and experimentation.

The Time Is Now- No Waiting Around

Data centers have a responsibility to remain functional 24/7, 365 days a year, rain or shine. If an electrical grid goes down, on-site power generation helps keep facilities independent and dependable, allowing for more control and consistency. As PUE numbers continue dropping with the advancement of new technology and increased efficiency, renewable on-site power generation certainly fits within the narrative of sustainable data centers. Even before newer advancements such as hydrogen fuel cells have been established across the industry, operators must begin the transition towards renewable on-site energy, if not already. 

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November 21, 2022