Sustainable Solutions for the Data Center: Net Zero Emissions Designs

Sustainability has become an increasingly frequent topic of discussion for data center operators, with many pledging to be carbon-free as soon as 2030.

But are these commitments a response to the threat of regulation, or are we making genuine strides in the right direction? How can an industry that emits as much greenhouse gas as commercial airlines so quickly reduce all its carbon emissions?

This article explains how sustainable data centers are not an empty promise but a feasible goal that presents many opportunities.

Beyond Carbon Neutral

First, let’s define the difference between carbon-neutral, net zero carbon, and net zero emissions, as they are commonly confused.

  • Carbon-neutral means balancing emitting and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks, offsetting the total amount off emissions. For example, a company can purchase carbon credits from a renewable energy project like a wind farm to balance their sheet.
  • Net-zero carbon suggests there were no emissions in the first place and, therefore, no need to capture them. For example, a data center that runs on solar power uses no fossil fuels and leaves no carbon footprint due to its power usage.
  • Net-zero emissions means not contributing to the buildup of climate-warming gases in the atmosphere, including fluorinated gases commonly used in data center cooling systems.

The Challenge Ahead

The data center industry consumes roughly 2% of the total electricity used in the US, which is equivalent to the electricity consumption of New Jersey. This high consumption wouldn’t be an issue if the electricity was entirely generated from renewable sources.

Unfortunately, over 60% of the world’s electricity is produced using fossil fuels, and as a result, data centers contribute to approximately 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, they are among the top ten water-consuming industries in the United States. Data centers use water for liquid cooling and electricity production, with the typical data center consuming the same amount of water as a city of 30,000 to 50,000 people.

Data Center Sustainability Roadmap

Obviously, water and energy are over-allocated resources, with climate change only exacerbating the problem.

But despite the headwinds, data centers can minimize emissions while driving innovation and engaging stakeholders.

Carbon-free Energy

Transitioning to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, or hydropower is the first step in reducing emissions. Data centers can also supplement their purchased energy cost-effectively by generating their own with solar panels or wind turbines on-site or nearby.

Additionally, hydrogen cells are a viable alternative to diesel-powered generators as a backup power source. Hydrogen is much cleaner and safer than diesel generators, providing longer lasting and more reliable power. Hydrogen cells are also quieter, more compact, and more efficient, reducing the backup power system’s physical footprint and maintenance and operating costs.

Energy Efficient Computing

There are three main server deployment models data centers can leverage to handle workloads more efficiently:

  • Cloud Computing

Between 2010 and 2018, data centers experienced a 550% rise in computing capabilities, with only a 6% increase in energy consumption. This improvement came mainly from the cloud, which increases efficiency by utilizing shared remote resources that are dynamically allocated to users as needed.

Cloud computing also made large-scale data centers the more energy-efficient solution than local servers, removing the need for organizations to maintain their hardware and immediately reducing their computing energy consumption.

  • Server Virtualization

Virtualization enables running multiple virtual servers on a single physical machine, increasing the hardware utilization rate and reducing the number of physical servers needed. Virtualization also enables the dynamic allocation of resources, allowing data centers to adjust resource usage in real-time to prevent overprovisioning.

Another key benefit of server virtualization is that it enables managing and deploying servers quickly and easily, regardless of physical location. As an added benefit, this agility also reduces downtime and improves reliability.

  • Server Consolidation

Reducing the number of physical servers and using fewer, more powerful servers significantly improves resource utilization.

Consider the example in which there are three servers: a file server, backup server, and web server. The web server operates continuously but doesn’t require a lot of resources. The file server runs during business hours but is idle at night, and the backup server works only at night. Since the file server and backup server are not at total capacity simultaneously, they remain idle most of the time. Meanwhile, the web server operates continuously but only utilizes some resources.

By consolidating three servers into virtual machines or containerized environments on a single machine, power usage becomes more efficient. Server resources are used more efficiently, and the workloads function as intended.

Green Data Centers

Below are data center design optimizations that increase energy efficiency:

  • Using materials with low embodied carbon, such as recycled steel and locally sourced wood, reduces the carbon footprint of a data center.
  • Maximizing natural light and ventilation lowers the overall cost of running a data center while reducing the environmental impact. Additionally, it can increase the comfort of data center staff, improving productivity.
  • Building taller data centers allows more space to house equipment and reduces land requirements, lowering construction costs and its impact on the environment.

Additionally, taller data centers can more easily use natural light and outside air to cool the building, reducing the need for energy-intensive cooling systems.

  • Building a data center outside of urban areas places it closer to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar farms, allowing for more direct and reliable access to energy.

Placing a data center in a rural area also promotes the growth of local clean energy infrastructure and stimulates economic development. Furthermore, it improves air quality and reduces the demand for energy and cooling in urban areas, helping to mitigate the strain on local infrastructure.

  • Choosing a colder climate to build a data center reduces its reliance on energy-intensive cooling systems by utilizing the external low temperatures.

For example, a data center with a winter temperature of 40°F can utilize the cold outside air combined with evaporative cooling to maintain optimal temperature conditions, saving energy, reducing the carbon footprint, and cutting operating costs.

  • Repurposing abandoned buildings is a viable alternative to building new facilities from scratch. Older buildings are often well connected to the power grid, eliminating the need for expensive infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the new data center.

Using abandoned buildings can also give these facilities a new lease on life while contributing to a more sustainable future.

Cooling and Temperature Management

As the amount of heat a data center generates increases, so does the challenge of efficient and effective cooling. Fortunately, modern cooling technologies have come a long way.

Immersion cooling is an increasingly popular system that completely submerges components in a thermally conductive coolant. Immersing servers in a dielectric liquid, such as mineral oil, eliminates fans and other moving parts for cooling. That facilitates the deployment high-density applications that would have been difficult to cool with air. Additionally, the liquid coolant can be recycled, making the cooling process even more environmentally friendly.

Another cutting-edge development is AI-assisted automatic cooling that quickly detects and responds to temperature changes, ensuring optimal temperature throughout the facility. By analyzing energy usage, AI can also identify opportunities for reducing consumption, for example, powering down idle servers.

The Opportunities

Sustainability is no longer an optional initiative but rather a crucial aspect of corporate success in a competitive market.

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) survey showed that 80% of consumers care about businesses using renewable energy. Adopting sustainable practices can therefore improve a company’s image as consumers become more environmentally conscious and more likely to do business with companies that share their values.

Being a leader in sustainability can also open up new markets. As data centers become more energy efficient and green, businesses will likely use environmentally friendly data centers to offset their emissions. For instance, an automotive manufacturer might use data centers with zero emissions for internal computing.

Finally, implementing green policies can ensure a company follows environmental regulations and avoid potential penalties while attracting lucrative low-interest, long-term investment opportunities.

Start Taking Steps Towards More Sustainable Data Centers

The data center industry has always been at the forefront of innovation and is now in a prime position to initiate changes rather than waiting for regulations to be imposed.

Furthermore, green policies are a prudent opportunity for any business looking to reduce costs, increase competitiveness, and enhance its brand.

By being open and transparent about our operations and striving to eliminate waste at all levels, we can ensure that our data centers are as sustainable as possible and secure a more robust, healthy, and sustainable environment.

Ron Cadwell