Renewable Energy for the Data Center: Where, When and How?

Arthur Cole
Slide Show

Six Tips for a Greener Data Center

Now that energy prices seem to have stabilized once again, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude surrounding the development and design of the next-generation, “green” data center.

It’s not that the IT industry has discarded the concept entirely--indeed, a number of high-profile projects are scheduled to break ground in the next few months--but there is growing disagreement over how to ensure that everyone’s needs are being met, including data providers, data consumers and the environment itself.

A key topic of debate is the use of renewable energy. Whether it’s wind, water, solar, geothermal, etc., questions are surfacing as to whether full or even partial dependence on renewables is right for the data center. It’s important to note that some of the criticisms are coming from leading environmental researchers, not the data center industry.


Renewables are in fact making a difference at some of the largest, scale-out HPC facilities on the planet. A case in point is the new NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne, which was built around the concept that data infrastructure needs to adapt to changing weather conditions in order to maintain efficiency. To that end, the center relies on 10 percent wind power, with the ability to draw more when conditions permit, as well as liberal use of natural cooling, recaptured waste heat and high-efficiency systems and room designs. It even has landscaping that features native plants to reduce water consumption.

Without doubt, the facility is a triumph of advanced environmental design and will serve as a template for future construction. Indeed, activity surrounding renewable-based data infrastructure is picking up, with much of it being led by the burgeoning renewable energy industry itself. VIESTE Energy, LCC, for example, has hired design firm Environmental Systems Design (ESD) to plan out a series of data centers across the U.S. that run on 100 percent renewable energy. A key component of the plan is a new biogas-fed generator capable of 8 to 15MW performance. The intent is to prove that renewables are fully capable of delivering reliable, cost-effective service to always-on data infrastructure.

The question of reliability has always weighed heavily on the renewables market, but initiatives like the VIESTE program could help counter those impressions in a very important way, by establishing a grid of distributed, green-energy data supply. In fact, this is the stated goal of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which has gathered together a number of industry leaders, including AMD, HP and GE, to establish a network of distributed, green data centers that can be used to shift loads, scale infrastructure up and down and in general make it easier for data users to maintain their reliance on renewable energy even if supply at one location is diminished. In other words, distributed architectures improve green reliability through redundancy just as they do for data infrastructure in general.

But not everyone on the environmental side is convinced that renewables are the best means of fostering data center efficiency. In a recent article in the journal Nature Climate Change, Stanford researcher Dr. Jonathan Koomey argues that without populating existing infrastructure with low-power hardware and data-power management technology first, data operators are simply wasting precious renewable resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. For projects like the NWSC and VIESTE, then, renewables may make sense because they power state-of-the-art green technology. But not as an industry-wide solution--renewables won’t make sense until hardware life cycles run their course.

The data industry, then, is in a very precarious position when it comes to the environment. Everyone agrees that it should consume less power, but few people are willing to curtail the digital lifestyles that have come to shape everyday life.

And it seems that with the environment, the only perpetual law is the one of unintended consequences. Despite the pressure from some corners to do more to help the planet, data center operators should at least try to ensure that their next big green initiative won’t do more harm than good.



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