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Data centers use a lot of electricity: There are ways to make them more sustainable

Using renewable energy will be most helpful in the long run instead of buying credits, expert says.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Dave Goddard, head of digital for Hitachi ABB Power Grid, about sustainability for data centers. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: When it comes to the sustainability goals for those data centers where are we right now, and what needs to happen?

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Dave Goddard: Data centers are huge, huge consumers of power. I read somewhere that if you totaled up the energy consumption of the large players, the Facebooks, the Googles, and so on, they actually consume as much power annually as New Zealand. So, there’s a huge amount of energy consumption. Now I’d also say that data center owners have been leaders in driving the adoption of renewable energy, but they’re doing that today through the purchase of renewable power agreements. So the opportunity, really, I think, is to then move from renewable power agreements to the actual adoption of renewable technologies locally to the data center.

Karen Roby: Dave, you mentioned that a lot of the consumers are actually the ones that are helping to push forward this change. Across the board are most companies, and those behind the scenes, are they ready to adopt these new changes and move forward?

Dave Goddard: There’s a general lean. Look, at the end of the day, we are seeing a transition where most companies have carbon neutral goals at some point in the future. In order to get to carbon neutrality, at least it is our belief that electricity will become the backbone for the entire energy system. And so I think pretty much all data center owners see the need for that transition. Many are in different areas on the journey, some are very advanced, some are using these large data center structures as a host for solar energy, they’re using the solar energy to feed into backup systems, like battery energy systems, and some are even adopting hydrogen based fuel cells to replace their traditional diesel generators. Where they are on that journey is varying, but I think there is generally a shift, and across every industry segment we see a shift towards the adoption of electricity, and therefore the acceleration of adoption of renewables.

Karen Roby: Dave, everybody asks about this crisis point, and when we will reach it. In your opinion, hard to say how much time we have to make change, but the time is certainly now.

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Dave Goddard: That’s a very big question, so I’m not sure that I’m able to answer that, really, I think you need to speak to the climate specialist. Look, I think if you look across the globe, people are defining sustainable goals in one form or another. In Europe, of course, there’s all of the SDGs, and we certainly, as a company, are striving to support those SDGs as well. So yes, there is a shift. Is it a crisis? I think the time for change is now. Now, that being said, and to our benefit, we have this huge increase in capability of the technology that will enable that shift. I just mentioned the edge of grid solutions, grid edge solutions, like battery energy storage systems, which will enable us to integrate renewable power into the grid more stably to drive more reliability. And I mentioned that there are supporting technologies, like hydrogen fuel cells, which will enable us to remove some fossil fuel consumption. It is certainly a time for everyone to consider strongly their goals, and to shift to change, I’ll leave it to others to define it as a crisis.

Karen Roby: Working backward here a little bit, tell us just a little bit about your position itself, and what you do for the company.

Dave Goddard: I drive the digital transformation of the company. Fundamentally, digitalization is a key enabler of the shift towards the ability to adopt renewable energy, because it’s allowing us to manage the increased complexity, it’s allowing us to increase the amount of renewables we bring into the traditional energy ecosystem, and it’s a fundamental enabler towards the shift towards the adoption of electricity across every aspect of the energy system. Digitalization to us is core to our strategy, I’m responsible for driving that strategy within the corporation.

Karen Roby: When we look ahead to, say, five years from now, where do you hope the conversation will be at that point, especially as it relates to these data centers, and when we talk about sustainability goals?

Dave Goddard: Well, I think we take advantage of the opportunity. I mean, again, I think the data center players are leaders, honestly, they’re doing a very good job in driving the shift towards renewables. Now what we’re doing is moving away from the carbon credit position where they’re purchasing renewable power, but that renewable power exists on a grid system which also contains fossil fuels, shifting towards more localized management of supply and demand. A data center being a physically large place can host solar panels and renewables. The technology exists now in battery chemistry to support significant hours of data center outages, for example, through batteries. It’s probably not quite today financially viable to have a 100-hour outage supported by batteries, so we also have alternate systems that can be used to replace the consumption of fossil fuels, those same systems I’ve mentioned.

If you think about how that might tie together as an ecosystem, you have solar energy that’s powering batteries, the batteries are being used as a temporary backup in the event that the solar energy is reduced, or indeed overnight, these are 24/7 activities. And then we have hydrogen fuel cells, we’re using some of that solar power through electrolysis to generate hydrogen, the hydrogen is being used to generate electricity. And so we’ve got this little ecosystem of capabilities that could allow us to be independent in certain data centers, and certainly much more sustainable in our approach. I think it’s a pivot from the renewable energy credits to the adoption of the technology to become more localized in the use and management of renewable consumption.

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