The need to power datacentres sustainably

As megatrends go, surging demand for cloud-based services seems unstoppable, says Chris Wellise, chief sustainability officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). “By 2020, half the world’s population is expected to have internet access and machine-to-machine connections will reach 100 billion devices. With this global connectivity, however, come both opportunities and challenges,” he says.

The social and economic rewards of this digital age carry environmental responsibilities and climate risks, with implications for natural resources, material e-waste and water abstraction. The primary concern, though, is energy and carbon.

This challenge looms ever larger, argues Gary Cook, senior corporate campaigner and IT sector analyst at Greenpeace. “The sector’s energy footprint already ranks in the top five if placed among countries, and it is about to experience a very dramatic increase in demand for both computing power and storage, with the internet of things, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, plus the 5G cellular network,” he says.

One in every five units of electricity could soon be at stake. Mr Cook says: “With estimates putting electricity demand of IT, including cloud computing, rising from 7 per cent to as much as 20 per cent of global demand by 2025, the urgency is incredibly clear.”

Growing energy demand

Despite exponential growth of data, doubling in size every two years, the good news is the tech community is not alone in facing up to the inherent and impending energy dilemma, says Michael Rohwer, associate director of BSR, a global non-profit organisation promoting sustainability.

“As a result of the shift toward cloud computing, datacentres now represent nearly 3 per cent of global energy demand. Powering these sustainably is no longer seen as an issue only for tech companies, though; others, like Bank of America, are working with renewable energy. We’ve seen nearly 3 gigawatts of new deals over the last year, led by companies, including Facebook, GM, Google and T-Mobile.”

Inspired by the United Nation’s sustainable development goals and Paris Climate Agreement, corporates and their cloud providers are increasingly aware of responsibilities and vocal about achievements in risk mitigation. More than 100 major brands and global market leaders, including Microsoft, Infosys and HPE, have signed up to the Climate Group’s RE100 campaign, for instance, committing to source all operational electricity from renewables.

In Silicon Valley terms, the craze is virtually going viral, says Mr Cook. “We have seen a race emerge among major US IT companies to build and power their corner of the internet using renewable energy, with over 20 adopting a long-term commitment,” he says. “While this started with consumer-facing companies like Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, it has now spread to co-location and cloud-service providers like Equinix, Digital Realty, AWS and Switch.”

For some, transparency remains an issue, as revealed in Greenpeace Clicking Clean reports that benchmark sector greening. Naming and shaming industry laggards, analysis has exposed rates of growth outstripping green investment and cleantech deployment, with coal and fracking plugging the gap. Of significant concern at present, according to Mr Cook, are large and rapidly expanding Asian internet brands, such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, which are experiencing explosive growth, but lack commitment to renewable energy.

For cooling equipment, the obvious solution is to choose a cold place for datacentres, such as on top of mountains or a location close to the North Pole

Greening energy generation is not the only way to shrink the carbon footprint of the cloud, however, notes Yinshan Tang, professor in business informatics at Henley Business School. “Apart from clean power, much more effort has been focused on efficiencies of energy consumption, such as new technologies including servers, networks, processors, storage, memory, disk array and cooling,” he says.

According to Professor Tang, most servers are underutilised by around 30 per cent, but still consume considerable amounts of energy. This makes power management an easy and obvious solution.

When it comes to mitigating heat-generation impacts of datacentres, though, the mantra often remains simply “location, location, location”. Professor Tang says: “For cooling equipment, the obvious solution is to choose a cold place for datacentres, such as on top of mountains or a location close to the North Pole.”

Facebook’s first datacentre outside the US opened some five years ago, in Luleå, northern Sweden, as part of a high-tech hub known as the Node Pole. At up to 84 football pitches in size, the new Kolos facility currently being developed in Ballangen, northern Norway, is laying claim to be the largest datacentre in the world, not just the Arctic Circle. Drawing on natural local hydro-power resources, it will also run on 100 per cent sustainable energy.

Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly for technology, there is an underlying belief in the power of innovation, literally. In fact, to obviate the need for security of energy supply via carbon-heavy backup, the greener cloud might just turn out to be one comprised chiefly of hydrogen, forecasts HPE’s Mr Wellise. “While we’re making big strides with renewable energy, reliability and redundancy remain an issue,” he says. “Current energy storage technologies, such as batteries, are not efficient and require large footprints.

“A potential breakthrough is hydrogen fuel cells. They are sustainable and carbon-neutral; their only by-product is water. While primarily a proof of concept, we hope this innovation inspires our customers to consider new emerging technologies as part of the energy portfolio.”

From dating apps to big data, we are all now cloud-based inhabitants of an expanding digital universe. For the sake of its sustainability, though, we should hope the industry is inclined to “swipe right” and keep choosing low-carbon partners.