Carbon-Positive Big Data

By Tom Elowson, Data Center Specialist on December 18, 2018
Tom Elowson
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The concept of a “carbon-positive” data center would have sounded like a bad joke just a couple of years ago. Articles like the one written by The Guardian back in 2016 predicted that data center energy use would triple “in the next decade, putting an enormous strain on energy supplies and dealing a hefty blow to efforts to contain global warming.” Warnings like these were not overstatements. Today, data centers account for nearly 3% of global carbon emissions, a level similar to the airline industry, and their use of energy continues to climb.

What was not fully taken into consideration back then was that technology advances―both in the design, architecture, and operation of data centers and in renewable energy―would make it possible for the industry to continue growing and increasing their use of energy, without the carbon emissions to match this growth. This is welcomed news, as IDC is forecasting that the “world’s data will grow from 33 zettabytes this year to 175 ZB by 2025, for a compounded annual growth rate of 61 percent,” according to NetworkWorld. In today’s post, we’ll highlight some of the initiatives to make carbon-positive data centers a welcome reality that can make this industry clean and prosperous.

Greener data: coming to our mobiles very soon.

How the World’s First Carbon-Positive Data Center Works

In October, the world’s first carbon-positive data center began operations in Falun, Sweden. An article in EnergyManagerToday wrote about this industry milestone, explaining that to be carbon-positive, a data center needs to use green energy to operate and transfer the heat generated by servers to energy or heat-producing applications around them. In the case of Falun’s data center, the surplus heat generated is used in a circular-economy fashion, “in Falu Energi och Vatten’s local district heating networks and a wood pellet factory. During the warmer months, the surplus energy in the district heating network is used for cooling the data center.”

Carbon-positive data centers make economic sense because more than one-third of the energy that a data center needs to operate is used for cooling servers. Transferring this heat and getting green electricity in return makes the centers cheaper to operate and satisfies growing stakeholder demand for clean operations. This is a big transformation from the traditional, warehouse-looking data centers that sprouted in the suburbs over the past decade, further straining already-stressed electric grids. Energy Manager Today points out that carbon-positive data centers “are integrated with the surrounding energy ecosystem to reuse the heat generated by the datacenter. Being climate positive means that not only are there no carbon emissions, but that during operation it even promotes the reduction of total carbon emissions.”

Twenty Other Environmentally Smart Data Centers

The first carbon-positive data center in Sweden is just one of the latest examples of the creative approaches that the industry is rapidly adopting to become more sustainable. TechRepublic recently gave us a “glimpse into the future of computing” by highlighting 20 innovative data centers around the world. Among the impressive data center innovations are the following interesting examples of very different approaches to sustainable data centers:

  • A data center built in an old ammunition bunker in Stavanger, Norway uses “gravity to passively pull in cold water from the bottom of a nearby fjord, cycle it through cooling systems, and pump it right back out into the same fjord, effectively cooling the entire data center for free.”
  • The Lefdal Mine Data Center, located onNorway’s west coast, repurposes what was once the largest olivine mineral mine in the world to “provide an efficient, secure, cloud environment that’s extensible by adding more container-based compute, storage, and cooling systems. Created jointly by IBM, Rittal, and Lefdal, the mine could house up to 1,500 containers and is cooled by water from a nearby fjord,” according to Electronic Design.
  • Cloud & Heat in Germany has technology that enables its server racks to “capture wasted heat and funnel it to buildings to heat water and air, and it can even distribute workload between data centers based on heating needs. For example, if the forecast is colder at one data center location, computing work will be shifted to that data center, so its servers can provide more heat.”
  • Citigroup’s Frankfurt data center was the first to be given a LEED platinum certification, one of the most recognized certifications for green buildings in the world. It is “one of the first super-sustainable data centers in the world. The data center has a green roof, green wall on part of the structure, uses reverse osmosis water filtering to reduce sediment buildup in cooling tanks, and server layouts were designed in a modular fashion that saved over 250 kilometers of cable.”

Other data center innovations highlighted by TechRepublic include a data center located100-feet under Stockholm; one being built in Reno, Nevada that will use 100% solar and wind energy; and one in Woodstock, Illinois, which gets 100% of its energy from wind and all of its heating and cooling from geothermal processes at their location.

Leading a Long Path Towards a Completely Sustainable Industry

Out-of-the-box thinking by the world’s data centers points to an industry that could become carbon-free soon. However, there is still much work to do. Google, who is the largest corporate buyer of renewable energy in the world, is working to enlighten the industry on its efforts to run its data centers with zero carbon emissions. They recently published an insightful and exhaustive report that sheds light on its endeavors to operate truly green data centers. The report gives detailed explanations and statistics of many of their data centers around the world and serves as an example for others, large and small, to follow.

The 3% global greenhouse emissions figure that data centers are responsible for seems to be a number that can be decoupled, and decreased, from their industry growth.This innovative industry just needs to continue doing what they do best: focusing on creative approaches to zero emissions by applying new energy technologies―from wind, solar, hydrogen, and geothermal―and working in concert with their natural surroundings to get and give energy.

Photo under license from Shutterstock.

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