Getting to green in the data centre
The use of clean energy sources to power huge computing clouds is an attractive option for data centre operators, but the choice is not a straightforward one.
Data centres are among the world’s fastest-growing energy consumers since power and cooling, the most critical needs for data centres, are prodigious users of electricity. The industry’s dependence on the existing power grid that relies predominantly on fossil fuel resources1 makes it vulnerable to future price shocks.
This makes renewable energy resources appear as a positive alternative. However, renewables - solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass, wind, marine power and tidal - are not always a viable option as the generation capability can be intermittent and cyclical.
Other renewable resources such as organic material (e.g. wood and sawdust from forest slash or lumber mills, or agricultural waste from plants or animals) for fuel sources in more standard generation plants may be more useful, but there are problems for use of biomass-to-electricity facilities too. These facilities are located far from most data centres and remain outside the direct control of data centre operators primarily because of the enormous capital expenditure required to establish such facilities within the confines of the data centres.
Harnessing the power of water from big dams on rivers makes also good green sense, but the construction of such hydro systems is too costly for all but major generating companies.
Nonetheless, renewables can be worth considering if data centre operators were to choose among energy suppliers that demonstrate a good mix of renewables in their portfolio to overcome intermittency problems. In addition, owning an on-onsite energy generation capability based on wind or solar as a secondary source, and relying upon the commercial grid as main energy source, can also help reduce demand for fossil fuel-based electricity.
Apart from the cost and long return on investment, renewable energy equipment also requires a great deal of space, all but ruling out deployment in urban areas, where land is scarce and expensive, or areas where land is not scarce but population density is tremendously high.
One potential solution is to set up server farms in rural areas with low population densities and lower land cost, and yet closer to renewable sources such as large-scale solar plants, geothermal, wind or hydropower. This may also require investment in fresh optical fibre capacity, but it is generally cheaper and easier to transport photons (information) over long distances than it is to transport electrons (energy).
In closing, from my point of view, renewables on their own cannot meet the industry’s ever-increasing energy demand as the implementation cost and very long return on investment make little economic sense, in particular for smaller operators. However, governments could play a role by introducing policies to promote alternative energy, such as feed-in tariffs, tax holidays, accelerated depreciation, carbon tax/pricing, trading schemes, capital subsidy, loans, grants, energy taxes, excise taxes or Value Added Tax (VAT).
As a result of such initiatives, and the expansion of fibre optic networks to remote areas, the industry investments will be money well spent for years to come and hopefully pave the way towards mass adoption of renewable energy–powered data centres.
- International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics, 2012
Amir Haghbin: ACCA Advisor and Founder at Cloud Malaysia Infocenter Follow Cloud Malaysia Infocenter on Twitter
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