The Clean Cloud: Meet the New Data Centers

By Tom Elowson, Data Center Specialist on May 08, 2018
Tom Elowson
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There is hardly a more literal, and appropriate, expression to adequately characterize today’s data centers than out-of-the-box thinking. Places that began as converted warehouses to store servers decades ago (and, thus, enable cloud computing) have transformed into modern facilities that power our always-connected digital lives, from your latest online purchases to your latest social posts.

Just as data centers are no longer in the periphery of our lives, neither are they in the periphery of the electric grid. Energy-intensive data centers, responsible for 3% of total energy consumption (and as much CO2 emissions as the entire airline industry), have become central to global efforts to generate sustainable electricity and limit greenhouse gas emissions. This forward-thinking and always-innovating industry is constantly coming up with out-of-the-box ideas not only to become environmentally friendly but to become a reliable resource for the grid. Today, we explore how data centers are providing back-up-power to help utilities manage energy peaks more effectively.

The clean cloud will not fog our energy-intensive, digital lives.

Power to the Grid

A few weeks ago, DatacenterDynamics published an article about a pilot project, launched in Sweden, that aims to use data center UPS systems (Uninterruptable Power Supply) to feed power back to the grid during peak periods. This initiative, called UPS-as-a-reserve (UPSaar) system, is an effort designed to connect “UPS batteries to the grid, so stored energy can be used in periods of low supply and high demand, helping to prevent grid-wide outages and reducing the need for ‘peaker plants’―power plants that only run for a few hours a day.”

Launched by Eaton (a power management company), Svenska Kraftnat (Sweden’s national grid), and Fortum (a utility provider), the initiative changes the role of data centers from that of power consumers to power suppliers. In what may become “the largest virtual battery in the Nordics,” the initiative will make surplus energy available to utilities when the electric grid needs it the most. This new way of collaborating with utilities is a win-win-win for everybody. Data centers can grow in such a way that turns them from a problem into a solution when it comes to supplying and providing energy. This new way of thinking, as Jussi Vihersalo, business development manager at Eaton, said in the article, “can be a model for the industry, and for other industries, to enable energy-hungry systems to use their own capacity to ease the traditional pains of keeping the grid running 24/7.”

The Cleaner Cloud

Another article on the role and impact of data centers, published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, opens with a bang by stating, “the cloud is coming back to Earth with a bump,” which underscores the role that these “factories of the Digital Age” have on sustainability and energy. This article also focuses on data center efforts in the Nordics. Specifically, “Google and Microsoft have recently built hubs in Finland, and Facebook in Denmark and Sweden,” adding that “Google last year also signed a deal to buy all the energy from the Netherlands’ largest solar energy park to power one of its four European data centers.”

Interestingly, this same article included an eye-opening table comparing the IT industry’s energy consumption in 2012 to that of the largest energy-consuming countries. In this light, the IT sector comes in third, after China and the United States. This figure highlights the importance that initiatives, such as Eaton’s, plays to ensure that data centers, and IT, continue to think outside-of-the-box to solve the energy problems the industry creates.

In the last two articles we wrote on data centers, we explored how the industry is doing just that. The first post examined the creative ways that new data centers are being designed and built for maximum efficiency by using the natural resources of their locations―from wind to terrain to sunlight. The second article analyzed how the industry and utilities work together to let us “click with confidence” when it comes to sustainability and efficient power.

Data Centers “With a Conscience”

Given their size and their central importance to our lives, another recent article examines how data centers could go beyond just data and “do more beyond safely storing our data and facilitating the exchange of information globally.” This “do more” capability would “apply design thinking” following the “UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in data center design.” As a result, in the future, we may see data centers go beyond simply becoming more efficient and sustainable to performing a variety of roles―from reducing waste to providing shelter during emergencies―by closely partnering with the communities they are part of.

Clean Cloud Ahead

Continued out-of-the-box actions to improve energy sustainability by one of the industries at the center of our lives point to a harmonious future between what we do, what we want, and what we need as a society. If these innovative initiatives between data centers, utilities, and society as a whole continue, the cloud will set a pace other industries can emulate. A clean cloud can bring about a better planet. Data centers are proving that they can show us how.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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