Everybody loves a good story, especially when it highlights not only a noble deed in the present but the promise of substantial rewards in the future.
For the enterprise, then, any news that it is taking concrete steps to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels is welcome, even if it only serves to lessen the public perception that we are single-handedly turning the earth into a barren wasteland.
Earlier this month, Apple announced that it has teamed up with NV Energy Inc. on a new solar farm that will supply electricity to its upcoming data center in Reno. The facility will generate about 43.5 million kilowatt hours per year, which is quite a lot for a solar plant, although not quite as much as the one powering its Maiden, NC, center, which delivers more 167 million kwh/year.
The thing about these high-profile endeavors, though, is that they are only feasible for top-tier data firms like Apple, Google and Facebook. Run-of-the-mill organizations simply don’t have the means to go all-renewable, unless such a service is provided by their local utility. And even then, there will still be those who grouse that it’s not enough.
A case in point is Facebook, which recently signed a deal with Sweden’s Vattenfall AB to supply its new center in Lulea with all hydro-electric power. The arrangement did receive a kudos of sorts from Greenpeace, which has been on the company’s case for a while regarding its energy consumption, but the environmental organization also noted that it would have been better if Vattenfall did not provide coal-powered electricity elsewhere in Europe. In other words, 100 percent renewable is only truly valid if it comes from someone who deals strictly in green energy.
This leads us into slippery slope territory, because after we’ve met the 100 percent renewable threshold, the next step will be renewable that doesn’t interfere with salmon spawning or seabird migration. And then there is all that messy plastic and silicon in data center hardware. And rare earth elements, let’s not forget about those.
There is also the troubling possibility that, since green energy production generally yields less electricity than coal or oil, the data center industry could be seen as a glutton for taking the lion’s share. For example, a Swedish wind farm developer called O2 is about the break ground on a new site in the small town of Pjala. It will hold 24 turbines for a combined output of 72 megawatts, the entirety of which is now slated to power Google’s newest data center across the border in Finland. As long as Google can claim that these resources are being devoted to valuable services like search and email, there should be few complaints. But if the public sees it merely as a means to house silly cat videos…
Again, though, the all-renewable option is available only to the largest of the large. But mere mortal enterprises may soon have some tools at their disposal to take advantage of green energy. Microsoft recently published a pair of algorithms that the company says could cut energy emission by 99 percent by predicting the best time to run heavy data loads. The math is designed to calculate the peaks and valleys of renewable energy’s presence on the local grid, giving enterprise managers a heads up as to when energy is cleanest, and possibly cheapest. In Ireland, where the system was first tested, it showed spot prices could be nearly 1,000 percent over average prices, while marginal emissions could vary by as much as 55 percent.
Ultimately, the demands that the data center industry places on the power grid are directly proportional to the demands the public places on data infrastructure. With mobile technology putting a client device in the pocket of nearly everyone in the western world (and much of the third world as well), lack of data connectivity is not just an inconvenience but a direct threat to the world economy.
Maintaining that infrastructure in an environmentally friendly manner is a noble goal, but we are on a very long road to a fully carbon-neutral data ecosystem.