Hyperscale data environments are usually built on hyper-dense hardware infrastructure, which inevitably requires a hyper amount of energy consumption to maintain adequate power and cooling levels.
But now that the public is keenly aware of the impact that worldwide data systems have on the energy grid – some estimates put the complete data center/Internet/all-things-digital power draw as high as 10 percent of total capacity – many of the leading hyperscale users have begun talking up the use of renewable sources like wind and solar. Through efficient design and innovative load management techniques, the hope is that data environments could one day become completely carbon neutral.
But is that realistic? When you’re talking about a data center with perhaps millions of processing cores, is there a wind farm or solar array big enough to reliably meet all of its energy needs?
The short answer is no, but that hasn’t stopped top data providers like Google and Facebook from trying. In Iowa, Facebook has been touting a 100 percent wind-powered data center, but, as ZDNet’s David Chernicoff notes, that is a goal, not a present reality. The idea is to locate the center near a large wind farm built in cooperation with the local utility that would feed into the existing power grid. Facebook would draw off that grid, pulling energy from both the farm and any number of traditional power plants in the area. To get to 100 percent renewable, Facebook plans to turn in Renewable Energy Certificates awarded by the EPA for its support of the wind farm, which will be used to offset its standard energy consumption. So the 100 percent figure exists on paper only, but in all fairness this is the only way a company like Facebook can employ renewable energy at all while retaining the reliability of service that its business depends upon.
Google is taking a similar tack with solar. The company recently announced plans for six new solar energy plants across the U.S., bringing its total investment in renewable energy to about $1 billion. As you would expect, most of the solar facilities are in the southwest, with wind and water facilities located wherever they are environmentally appropriate. And as in Facebook’s case, they are also intended to supply local power grids where the energy will be used by everyone from homeowners to large corporations. At the moment, Google estimates that it receives about 20 percent of its energy supply from renewables, even though it, too, has set a 100 percent goal for itself.
Part of the problem with utility-based electricity, whether renewable or not, is that power generation is so far removed from power consumption. The fact is that an enormous amount of energy, perhaps 80 percent, is lost on the journey from the source to the data component. This is why Microsoft, for one, is looking to place fuel cells directly into the server rack where they can power equipment without undergoing the multiple conversion processes that account for much of the loss. Even still, results so far have shown perhaps a doubling of efficiency to about 40 percent, which means more than half of what the enterprise is paying for in the fuel cells is wasted. But the company is working on a number of new designs that may produce a solution that is both scientifically sound and financially viable.
Clearly, then, a lot of progress has been made in the use of renewables in support of data infrastructure, and it seems that future research can proceed down any number of avenues. And even if 100 percent renewable proves to be an elusive goal, the planet would still be better off with its data infrastructure reducing fossil fuel consumption even by a fraction.