Future Trends and Best Carbon Neutral Data Center Practices | Webinar QnA

14 Jun 2023

BIS Research recently concluded an extensive and insightful webinar on the “Carbon Neutral Data Center Practices,” discussing the prospects of the functioning of data centers that can have minimal impact on the environment by creating a carbon-neutral setup.

The webinar was hosted by Debraj Chakraborty, Principal Analyst, Energy and Power, at BIS Research. He was joined by JD Enright Sr., COO of TMGcore Inc.

Some very critical questions were raised during the session by the attendees, which were duly answered by the panel of speakers.

Here’s an excerpt from the QnA that took place during the webinar:

Q.    Do you see a role for fuel cells running on hydrogen as part of the solution?

Yes, hydrogen fuel cells can potentially play a substantial role in creating carbon-neutral data centers. They could serve as an alternative to traditional power sources, such as diesel generators for backup power, or even replace a significant portion of grid-derived electricity, which often comes from carbon-intensive sources.

Here's how this could work:

•    Zero-Emission Power: Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air, with the only byproduct being water. This means they can produce power without any carbon emissions if the hydrogen is sourced from renewable or carbon-neutral sources.

•    Reliability and Redundancy: Fuel cells can provide a highly reliable, on-site power source, which is particularly valuable for data centers that require near-constant uptime. They can also serve as a form of redundancy, ensuring that the data center can keep running even in the event of a power grid failure.

•    Energy Storage and Grid Services: If combined with electrolyzers (which use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen), hydrogen can act as a form of energy storage. This could help to balance supply and demand on the power grid, provide power during peak times, and further reduce a data center's carbon footprint by making better use of renewable energy.

•    Heat Utilization: Fuel cells generate heat as a byproduct, which can be used for heating purposes within the data center, further increasing their overall energy efficiency.

However, some challenges need to be addressed before this vision can be fully realized. Hydrogen storage and safety issues need careful handling, and the current cost of fuel cells and green hydrogen (produced using renewable energy) can be quite high. Infrastructure for producing, transporting, and storing hydrogen is still under development in many areas.

But with ongoing research and development, advances in technology, and supportive policy measures, hydrogen fuel cells could indeed become an important tool for creating carbon-neutral data centers.

Q.    As you mentioned, carbon neutrality is a myth. What should be the approach then?

While it's true that current challenges make it difficult for data center operations to become entirely neutral due to their value chain constraints, significant strides can be made toward reducing their overall carbon footprint.

Mining and manufacturing of materials such as silicon and other metals indeed generate substantial emissions, and the construction of data centers involves concrete, another major source of emissions. Furthermore, given the limitations of renewable energy production and the 24/7 operations required by data centers, some reliance on fossil fuels currently seems inevitable.

However, adopting a strategic combination of energy and resource efficiency measures can substantially mitigate these effects:

•    Promoting On-site Renewable Energy Production: By producing a portion of their energy requirements on-site using renewable sources, data centers can significantly reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. This not only decreases their carbon emissions but also enhances their energy resilience.

•    Innovative Cooling Systems: By transitioning to advanced cooling technologies like liquid cooling and immersion cooling, data centers can achieve substantial energy savings. These systems are typically more efficient than traditional air-based cooling, reducing the amount of energy needed to manage heat loads.

•    Energy Storage Solutions: Implementing stationary battery storage systems can further reduce reliance on carbon-intensive backup power sources like diesel generators. Battery storage can provide an immediate response to power outages, enhancing reliability while reducing emissions.

•    Decentralizing Cloud Infrastructure through Edge Facilities: Smaller, decentralized edge facilities can run more efficiently, often powered entirely by renewable energy. They're also typically less resource-intensive to build than large-scale data centers, reducing emissions from construction. Also, their closer proximity to end users can reduce latency and improve performance, adding further value.

By holistically integrating these strategies, we can dramatically lessen the environmental impact of data centers while also improving their performance and reliability. Although becoming fully carbon neutral might be a distant goal, every step taken toward reducing emissions represents significant progress in the transition toward a more sustainable digital future.

Q. You mentioned SMR as a possible solution. Is nuclear energy renewable?

Small modular reactors (SMRs) indeed present potential solutions for the high power demands of data centers. They can provide constant and reliable energy, independent of weather conditions, unlike many renewable sources. However, it's important to clarify that nuclear energy is not considered renewable energy. Renewable energy comes from resources that are naturally replenishing, such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves, and geothermal heat.

•    Nuclear energy, on the other hand, comes from the process of nuclear fission, which involves splitting atoms of uranium in a nuclear reactor. Uranium is a finite resource, so nuclear energy is not renewable in the traditional sense. That said, nuclear energy is often classified as a form of low-carbon energy because the process of nuclear fission does not directly emit greenhouse gases like burning fossil fuels does. Thus, it can contribute to a lower-carbon energy mix and be part of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

•    However, the use of nuclear energy raises other concerns, such as the management of radioactive waste, risks of accidents, and issues related to the mining and refining of uranium. Hence, its integration into plans for powering data centers would require careful evaluation and stringent safety measures.

Q. Taking Iceland as an example, where data center cooling is done via free cooling, taking advantage of natural cold weather. But is it possible to cool higher-density racks with free cooling solutions?

Free cooling, also known as air-side or water-side economization, takes advantage of naturally cool outside air or water to reduce the need for mechanically cooled air in a data center. Iceland, with its cold climate, is an ideal location for such systems. However, as data center rack densities continue to increase due to technological advancements, cooling these high-density racks becomes more challenging. In these scenarios, traditional free cooling methods may not be sufficient due to the immense heat produced by the densely packed servers.

One potential solution is to use a hybrid approach that involves free cooling and water-based cooling methods. In colder climates like Iceland, this could involve using liquid cooling solutions such as direct-to-chip liquid cooling or immersion cooling, in addition to free cooling. In direct-to-chip cooling, cool water or a cooling liquid is piped directly to the parts of the server that generate the most heat. In immersion cooling, servers are immersed directly in a non-conductive cooling liquid. Both these methods are much more effective at removing heat than air cooling and can be combined with free cooling.

For example, the waste heat from the servers could be used to warm up a building or be ejected outside when the outside temperature is low. When the outside temperature is high, a cooling tower or another form of mechanical cooling could be used.

So, while free cooling alone might not be sufficient for high-density racks, a combination of free cooling and water-based cooling could potentially be an effective and energy-efficient solution.

Q.    What are the regulations guiding carbon neutral data centers?

There are no globally standardized regulations specifically guiding carbon neutrality for data centers. However, there are several international frameworks, standards, and regulations that can indirectly guide the operation of carbon-neutral data centers. These include:

•    ISO 50001: This is a standard for energy management systems, providing a framework for establishing energy management best practices and improving energy efficiency, which could contribute to carbon neutrality.

•    The Paris Agreement: While not specifically targeted at data centers, the Paris Agreement commits countries to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degree Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. This has implications for all sectors, including data centers, which are significant energy consumers.

•    European Union’s Green Deal: The EU has outlined a series of measures to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, including a focus on digital sectors like data centers. The EU has also proposed a "Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact," which sets a self-regulatory initiative to make data centers in Europe climate neutral by 2030.

•    Energy Star Certification: This is a widely recognized certification that signifies energy efficiency. Data center equipment (like servers and storage equipment) that meets Energy Star criteria would consume less energy and thus contribute to reduced carbon emissions.

•    Uptime Institute's Tier Certification: This is a performance-based evaluation of a data center’s specific infrastructure, offering a measure of how effectively the design is likely to meet the organization's requirements, which could include energy efficiency and carbon neutrality.

Beyond these, various countries and regions may have their own regulations and incentives for reducing carbon emissions and promoting energy efficiency. Compliance with these, in addition to voluntary adoption of best practices for energy use and sourcing of renewable energy, can help guide data centers toward carbon neutrality.

Watch the complete webinar below:

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