The argument could be made that data centers are a major driving force in the energy transition to renewables...Siemens
With the backdrop of a global energy crisis, it’s perhaps a good time to discuss the real energy cost of data centers, why they’ve become one of the world’s fastest-advancing industries, and how an argument could be made that they are, in fact, a major driving force in the energy transition to renewables.
Firstly, let’s consider their growth. Between 2015 and 2021, internet users have increased by 60%, and internet traffic by 440%, according to IEA data. But despite a rise in workload for data centers of 260% in the same time period, global energy use attributed to data centers has remained relatively flat, representing just a 10% increase.
This decoupling of energy usage from service demand is hugely significant. It’s being driven by rapid innovation of digital technology in data centers, allowing the industry to offset huge increases in demand with improved infrastructure efficiency.
In short, we are building more and more digital capacity, modernizing legacy infrastructure and meeting the growth, but in real terms we’re not using much more energy than we were five years ago.
The real challenge here is how we limit the environmental impact of global internet use. We should be honest; there is an impact, there always will be and we need to continue to use technology and commercial innovation to mitigate it.
Looking at the lifecycle of a datacenter, we see that more than 85% of the carbon impact today comes from operations. There is also certainly an impact during construction and it’s also significant – certainly worthy of mitigation – but net-zero construction will not address the larger part of the challenge: the carbon impact of running the facility for 20 years or more.
Driving the energy transition
Enter the concept of energy mix. A data center’s carbon performance is broadly a function of the energy mix in the location in which it’s operating. There are some exceptions, where operators take the responsibility to generate power on-site using renewables or gas, but largely speaking local grids power data centers.
The data center industry is a major buyer of PPA agreements for renewable energy, and this has a significant impact on the energy mix. In 2021, Amazon and Microsoft were the two largest corporate buyers of renewable energy through PPA; to a degree, the data center industry is helping to drive decarbonization by underwriting a significant proportion of grid-scale, carbon-free energy for industry.
This can catalyze a whole ecosystem at a national level, and also demonstrates to the broader industrial base that critical loads can reliably move to renewables.
Growing adoption of renewable energy – and higher levels of infrastructure redundancy at the IT level – are also leading to new design best practices in data centers. Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) are replacing diesel gensets as short-term backup power supply, for example.
With energy markets increasingly interconnected, data centers adopting BESS can generate unprecedented revenues by running in island mode in case of outages (without emitting carbon dioxide from diesel generators) or stabilizing the frequency of the grid.
Beyond carbon reduction
The quest for efficiency is as important as ever, and the discipline of energy management has a massive effect on the operational impact of a data center. Innovation in technology for managing environmental conditions inside a data center is having a significant impact on energy consumption.
We know that 20% to 40% of a data center’s energy use can go towards cooling and ventilation, and this mechanical load is a prime area for optimization through technology. White space cooling is a good example. Our technology for this – a white space cooling optimization solution – uses an advanced machine-learning model to analyze the effect of cooling on specific areas of a data center, creating an influence map to limit energy use to only what’s necessary.
AI engines like this can make a significant difference to a data center’s energy costs; it’s one of the reasons the new Greenergy data center in Estonia is the most energy efficient in the Baltic region.
Building elasticity into data center design is also a key factor in reducing the sector’s energy consumption and cost. Through intelligent design, instrumentation, control and automation, a data center can enable and disable capacity when it’s needed, rather than constantly running circuits and networks with no work to do.
In addition to preventing the over-provision of infrastructure, this is crucial at times of the year where additional capacity is needed to cover short peaks in demand. Black Friday and the Christmas period are a perfect example; with better mechanical, electrical and automation design we can dynamically reduce or increase data center infrastructure resources, enabling them to reliably run closer to their capacity for short periods of time.
Digitalization and the rise of internet access have delivered significant benefits to humanity, but we should be humble enough to acknowledge there is a sustainability impact. Our mission now is to continually and steadily drive that impact toward zero.
The data center industry has led by example by willingly investing in decarbonization, and has demonstrated that an ecosystem of technology companies can work together to measure, manage and fundamentally change an industry’s approach to energy through innovation. We must continue this pace of investment and innovation if we are to deliver the lowest possible impact of our digital lives on the environment.
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