Google vs Microsoft vs Apple vs Facebook. The Race to be 100% Green

The shift towards renewable energy sources

The data centre sector is in the midst of a rapid shift towards sustainability as providers and operators seek to attain 100% renewable resources for the ever-growing data centre market.

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Everyone is in on it too, and are not just leaving it up to data centre firms to come up with sustainability initiatives. From Microsoft and Google to Facebook and Apple, this year has seen a vast increase in the number of solar power panels and wind turbine farms, as well as liquid cooling and data centres being used to heat residential homes. Abigail Opiah reports.

The biggest ever renewable energy purchase in corporate history happened this year when Google purchased a 1,600 MW package of agreements that includes 18 new energy deals. Google’s renewable energy fleet now stands at 52 projects in total.

“Digital technology companies are likely to be winners as we transition to a low-carbon society, and companies such as Google have long been leaders in the corporate world with regards to engagement on climate issues,” says Chris Preist, Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems, University of Bristol.

“The recent announcement of large scale long-term purchasing agreements for renewable energy will make a genuine difference to the supply, allowing renewable energy companies the security to invest in expansion. The main focus of companies is currently on the emissions they directly control – primarily, the energy use in their data centres.

“However, I expect more attention to be paid in the future to the indirect impacts of the services they provide – namely the energy used in the network and home by these services.

Already, for services like YouTube, only a small part of the energy consumption is in the data centres. Most of it is in the network, particularly the mobile network, and small design decisions can have big energy consequences for such a global service.”

When asked how digital technology companies can design their services to reduce energy requirements elsewhere in the system, Priest adds that they will become particularly acute as we move towards deployment of 5G and Edge Computing, which risks increasing computation away from the corporate data centres, in potentially less efficient local nodes.

Wind turbines spin near Google’s Eemshaven, Netherlands data centre

Google are not the only ones doing their bit to fight climate change. Digital Realty recently expanded its renewable energy and sustainability initiatives with a long-term power purchase agreement to source solar power for a portion of its Northern Virginia portfolio and a utility green tariff to supply renewable power to its Oregon data centre development project.

“We are efficient in the use of water energy and other materials. In the operations phase, we are optimising the efficiency of the company’s data centre portfolio to make sure that we are keeping PUE’s low, and we are not wasting any resources,” says Digital Realty’s Director of Sustainability, Aaron Binkley.

“We are supporting our customers in their search for renewable energy resources to power data centres. In a number of our facilities, we are thinking about liquid cooling and are provisioning the ability to provide that for customers who want it in many cases.

“However, we are not seeing the majority of our customers needing water cooling. Our European portfolio is currently 100% renewably powered as is our entire retail colocation business. There is a paradigm change where renewables in some markets are becoming the low-cost power resource – it’s not traditional to pay a premium for green power anymore. In some cases, we are seeing a discount for green power, which makes the economic case justifiable to transition to renewables.”


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From a price perspective, onshore wind has become the world’s
lowest-cost energy source for power generation, with an unsubsidised Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) that range from $30–60 per megawatt-hour (MWh), which falls below the range of the cheapest fossil fuel, natural gas ($42–78 per MWh).

“Companies have started to realise that sustainable energy is cheaper than its alternative and the momentum has now changed because there is so much request for renewable energy.

Some of the challenges that data centre sector will come across in their plan to become 100% green is large-scale long-term energy storage,” says Lex Coors, Chief Datacentre Technology & Engineering Officer, Interxion.

“We use water as the economic alternative and not as a critical component. If you look at the EU in the summer seasons there are some places with water shortages, which may have a direct impact on the business if we were solely dependent on water. If you look at how much water is used for a 15 MW data centre, it is anywhere between 80 to 130 million gallons of water of a year of cooling if water is used as the critical component. In Europe, we are part of the super grid, and we pay a premium on the green energy to invest in more sustainable energy plans.”

One thing is clear, the rapid increase of data is increasing the demand for data centre storage.

Google’s Mayes County, Oklahoma data centre cooling towers

Hyperscalers are lumbered with the task of creating facilities to house the mass data that is being generated as well as consider the impact it will have on this earth as a result of the increase in data centre facilities.

Research shows that the total number of large data centres operated by hyperscale providers increased to 504 at the end of the third quarter, having tripled since the beginning of 2013.

“Data centres and servers are hugely complicated pieces of tech, with many moving parts and components. This makes it difficult to recycle
and reuse whole units without first decommissioning the equipment and sanitising the individual parts,” says Ben Griffin, Director at Computer Disposals Ltd (CDL).

“At CDL, we remove all hard disk drives from servers. The drives are then wiped using the highest standard NSCS-approved software to ensure they contain no data. The drives and the casings can then be resold into the market, and any components that have no resale potential are recycled in full.

“We have noticed a trend in many industries with more and more businesses recognising the value and benefits to the environment of correct equipment disposal. Many businesses recognise that equipment from a data centre can be securely sanitised and then transferred to another centre. Not only does this make sense from a sustainability perspective, but it can also be a cost-saving exercise for the business.”

It is clear that the industry needs to take action and accelerate their search for new ways to minimise carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency –this is a challenge that many organisations face.

If there isn’t enough renewable energy sources being created to meet 100% renewable targets, then the ambition for green data centres cannot be fulfilled.

“When we look at the power being absorbed by electronics, which is currently around 5% of global energy, the prediction is that over the next ten years, that could rise to 40% of global energy because of all the technologies that we are now using. Mobile phones are consuming vastly more data because they are more than just mobile phones, they are mobile communication and lifestyle technologies now,” says George Adams, Director of Energy and Engineering, SPIE UK.

“Our lives are being driven by what we can do on a mobile phone, which is a huge increase of power consumption. We do a lot of work with outside air to cool the data centre – with a small timeframe during the year where we need to supplement that with mechanical cooling.”

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