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Powering Data Centers Sustainably

By Dave Sterlace
15-09-2022 | 6 min read

Demand for data centers is soaring, prompting calls to cut carbon emissions

Data centers consume 1-2% of the world’s electricity, and demands are only growing due to the rise of work from home and the growth in data consumption. Tremendous amounts of data are used to stream entertainment and engage in web conferences - all of which demand increased networking, processing, and storage capacity.

Also, although roughly three billion people have access to the Internet globally, there are about 30 billion machines attached to the Internet. As more and more industries become digitalized, data centers have become essential beyond just delivering services to people, but for the sharing of data between machines.

Many giant tech companies at the heart of this exchange have aggressive sustainability goals, focused on carbon reduction. Microsoft announced plans to go carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 plans to remove all the carbon the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975. With grid edge solutions such as microgrids and battery storage systems, as well as direct current (DC) power transmission, there are many opportunities for operators to maximize their use of renewable generation while reducing their use of fossil-fuel-based energy sources.

Major challenges in the industry

The challenges associated with the growth in data centers are manifold. First, they require large volumes of power, with high reliability and exceptional power quality. Meeting this demand can put significant pressure on power grids. In countries such as the Netherlands, Singapore, and Ireland (where this sector consumes roughly 13% of the electricity on the network), authorities have at times halted the construction of data centers due to power requirements.

At the same time, key industry players are looking toward renewable energy as their primary electricity source, in keeping with their goal of minimizing carbon footprint. With so much demand on the grid amid the transition to clean energy, this can create conflicts. External pressures have pushed operators to consider new sources of renewable energy generation. They also need to ensure the availability of power continuously, which can present challenges due to the intermittency of renewable energy generation.

Data centers typically have several greenhouse gas contributors from construction to operations, including the diesel generators that provide backup power, and the use of grid-connected fossil fuel generation sources for cooling, computing and other operations. Owners, and operators of these facilities, as well as the contractors involved in constructing them, are looking to the energy industry to explore a variety of strategies to improve reliability, increase efficiency, and drive sustainable practices as part of their energy management goals.

The aging grid and power disruptions

We’ve all heard about the aging grid—electrical infrastructure in many parts of the world is outdated and susceptible to power outages and disruptions as heatwaves and storms wreak havoc. Just last year, Australia suffered from devastating wildfires that tore through communities and as hurricane season approaches in the U.S., power outages become increasingly likely. Widespread adoption of microgrid technologies can help operators take more control of their power supply. Microgrids employ monitoring and energy storage capabilities to manage power locally, providing the ability to minimize the impact of regional power outages and disruptions. These systems, particularly when coupled with renewable generation sources like solar panels, wind turbines, or geothermal generators, can enable the transition away from traditional backup sources such as diesel generators. Investing in renewable energy to support their needs is a critical success factor.

Creative strategies for data center sustainability

Higher server density for high-performance compute applications like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has led to renewed interest in liquid cooling. As equipment becomes more sophisticated, the amount of rack power and heat generated by the hardware increases can require more cooling capacity. Business mandates have pushed the industry to explore new technologies that integrate renewables into the cooling infrastructure. With more efficient uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) and equipment capable of operating at higher voltages, data centers can lower their energy consumption. Digital techniques for traditionally “analog” technology like switchgear allow for greater efficiency and ease of monitoring energy consumption. More efficient choices in power and cooling infrastructure can also result in a lower operating budget.

For years, operators have explored moving to direct current (DC) for power distribution within the data center. A DC system makes it easy to integrate solar or fuel cells to produce power and may allow more space for server racks and cooling equipment. With fewer conversions from AC to DC and back again, it may be possible to minimize the amount of energy loss and heat generated. However, there are a few obstacles that shield DC power distribution from wider adoption: limited supplies of air conditioning units, lack of experience among data center operators, shortages of commercially available IT equipment, and a need for standards from electrical authorities around arc flash prevention, grounding systems, system voltage, and DC cabling and other technical requirements.

Although the industry has achieved many sustainability goals over the past decade, little attention has been paid to the construction side of the equation. The carbon embedded in the concrete and steel that go into building a new data center can be driven down in the early development phase by using existing structures where possible, using modular equipment that minimizes the need for concrete foundations, designing alternatives to carbon-intensive structural materials, and introducing sustainably manufactured equipment.

Data centers can also operate more sustainably through the development of an on-site microgrid coupled with renewable energy generation sources such as solar or wind farms, which could help to offset the need for grid-connected power sources. 

How Hitachi Energy can help

Hitachi Energy has been a partner to grid operators for over one hundred years. We bring a unique level of capability and experience in solving large-scale industrial power problems and building mechanisms that support reliable operations. Our global footprint ensures that we can provide data center operators with the local, specialized support that is essential to building new facilities in a sustainable way. In three years, we’ve managed to match the 400% growth in data traffic. From design and delivery up to the operation, we offer sustainable solutions throughout the life cycle of data centers. As large companies aim to reduce the carbon emissions produced by third party suppliers, we are proud to be 100% fossil free in our production and operations.

The future of data centers

We are moving toward a future where data center operators are major participants in the grid, as consumers of energy, as potential developers of local renewable generation such as solar farms to support their operations, and as microgrid operators. As energy consumption continues to grow exponentially, these companies are in a unique position to revamp their current operations to produce and consume efficient, renewable power.

For more in-depth information on the rise of sustainable data centers, please watch this webinar. To learn more about our offerings for the industry, please visit our page here.

Dave Sterlace
Strategic Account Manager

Based in the Philadelphia area, Dave has 25+ years of data center and critical power experience. A strategic account manager for Hitachi Energy, Dave is focused on the development of more efficient, sustainable data center power solutions.

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