A user complains about it taking too long to load apps. Another says they like to read the newspaper while they wait for the next web page to appear. Someone else notes that database queries are taking too long.
“More, more, more” may be the mantra for data center capacity, but it’s quite the opposite when it comes to energy use. Many of the sector’s biggest players have been taking a less-is-more approach to energy and water systems, investing in sophisticated new energy-efficiency solutions like microgrids and renewable energy development, according to JLL research.
Their motivation is well-founded. Gartner research indicates the environmental pairing of climate change and resource scarcity has become one of the most important mega-trends shaping industry strategy. Combined with new, cost-effective technology and the economic appeal of reducing energy costs, the case for energy efficiency measures strengthens every day.
A TRIPLE BOTTOM-LINE WIN FOR EFFICIENCY
Rising to the challenge of climate change gives the data center operator a triple bottom-line win; it enables the company to support people, the planet, and profits at the same time.
Let’s start with the economic bit. Energy efficiency improvements in the U.S. data center industry are predicted to save roughly 620 billion kWh between 2010-2020, according to a report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Just think about the difference those reductions could have on the typical data center energy bill.
The planet benefits, too, because data centers consume a hefty chunk of electricity each year, including 70 billion kWh in 2014 alone. This appetite is unavoidable, of course, considering reliable energy flow is so vital to keeping critical systems operating nonstop at high performance. But every kWh of fossil-fuel-derived electricity saved in an energy-efficient data center helps reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.
The final piece of the triple-bottom-line pie is people. As data center leaders work to fulfill and enhance corporate social responsibility goals, they can earn appreciation and support from new customers, the public, and shareholders alike.
That combined appeal has inspired major industry players to take action and their efforts are already paying off. The Berkeley Lab report shows the U.S. data center industry has dramatically cut its electricity use since 2000. While the industry has been growing rapidly, data center electricity consumption grew by just 4% from 2010-2014. This is a striking reduction from the estimated 24% rise from 2005-2010 and 90% increase from 2000-2005.
Despite estimates that the total server installed base will grow by 40% between 2010-2020, the industry is currently on track to reduce energy consumption up to 40% by 2020.
FOUR WAYS DATA CENTERS ARE WINNING AT EFFICIENCY
Consumer thirst for streaming entertainment and corporate adoption of Internet of Things technologies will only increase demand for data centers and, in turn, energy. By pursuing some or all of the following efficiency-building tactics, forward-looking data center leaders are working to keep their resource footprints to a minimum.
- Sophisticated new power proportionality methods. A typical data center experiences a tremendous variation in load levels throughout each day. For example, online services may not be in high demand at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, but systems like robust storage and cooling management will always be needed. By scaling back electricity use when a system is not needed at max capacity, and ensuring it’s available for heavy-volume times, data centers can become more nimble, and can better align the workload with the energy strategy.
Additionally, as power-usage allocation intelligence improves, companies are becoming better adept at forecasting their use of power and related costs. In turn, they are better-suited to optimize space and minimize redundancies, so both users and operators can benefit from the savings.
- More efficient cooling strategies. Energy consumption may receive the most attention, but water use is also a growing concern. A midsize 15-MW center uses an estimated 80 to 130 million gallons of water each year. That’s a major concern, especially in drought-ridden Western states like California, where the industry consumes about as much water annually as 158,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to 451 Research.
To help turn the tide, some data center operators are looking for new methods to reduce their draw on municipal water supplies, such as harvesting rainwater or digging their own wells. For example, Digital Realty Trust has set an internal goal to eventually cut its water use by a quarter through such means as investing in recycled wastewater, according to the Wall Street Journal.
There’s more to cooling than sheer water use, of course. Protecting sensitive infrastructure systems from overheating around the clock requires a massive amount of electricity as well. Fortunately, the strategies that power critical cooling systems are also advancing rapidly, from hot aisle containment systems to ceiling return plenums and variable speed monitors. So while it is still possible to spend as much energy on cooling than on the technology being cooled, it is becoming more and more possible to chill a data center with a fraction of the energy consumption required a few years ago.
- Renewable energy from wind and solar. The tech sector’s biggest names are clamoring for solar and wind, including in their data centers. In its goal to reach 100% renewable energy by 2018, Google is planning to buy enough wind and solar energy to offset all the electricity used at its data centers. Microsoft plans to reach 50% renewables for its data centers by 2018, too.
This momentum is in part thanks to the falling cost of renewable technology, which has helped pave the way for an array of data center rooftop installations across the nation. For example, Emerson has a 100-kW solar-panel array on the roof of its data center in Missouri, while Other World Computing’s onsite turbine at its Illinois facility may be the first U.S. data center to be powered entirely with onsite wind, according to Data Center Knowledge.
And it’s not just in-house renewable projects that are making a splash, either. Colocation providers are also beginning to offer clean energy as a service alongside their traditional data services. For example, Arizona-based colocation provider IO recently announced that it will enable customers to purchase clean energy through the local utility at an incremental cost increase.
Cooperative efforts between data centers and utility companies that benefit both the community and data centers have also taken place in Arizona, with PayPal and ASU agreeing to buy renewable energy from APS’s new 40-MW Red Rock Solar Plant, which was built on 400 acres of land APS has owned since the 1950s.
- Microgrids for greater autonomy, reliability, and efficiency. With the rise of severe weather events associated with climate change, it’s no wonder that data center leaders are drawn to the notion of a localized, independent power grid. And those conversations are now turning into concrete development plans.
For instance, the largest utility in Arizona is well underway on development of a 63-MW data center microgrid, while Colorado is in the midst of developing a massive 300-MW microgrid park. Together with renewables, this emerging trend represents a meaningful way forward for data centers looking to save on electricity, all while achieving greater control.
TIME TO SIT BACK AND WATCH THE EFFICIENCY GROW?
Momentum, interest, and technology may all be on the rise. But data centers will need to continue stepping up their game to help combat climate change.
Research cited in the Independent indicates that energy consumed by global data centers is doubling every four years, and is expected to roughly triple in the next decade. In fact, one study estimates that Japan’s data center facilities will consume the nation’s entire electrical supply by 2030 if today’s growth rates continue.
On the bright side, we’re seeing more and more breakthroughs in the areas of efficiency and environmental stewardship. Now is the time for proceeding further toward a less-is-more data center world.