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What Lies Behind The Energy Used To Power Data Centres?

Demand for data centres is increasingly high and companies seek 'greener' solutions without losing productivity

26Jul

Even though the internet is a virtual world, the energy it uses for data operation is real. Considering the increasing demand and popularity of computing and mobile devices, we can expect more internet traffic and therefore more energy use. Tech giants are willing to contribute towards cleaner energy and overall reduction of its use but there are many challenges on the way.

According to their official blogs, Microsoft and Apple claim they already use 100% renewable energy. Apple collaborates with more than 160 recyclers globally and aims to deliver innovation based on renewable resources. Despite such initiatives, Apple still faces scrutiny over its environmental policies though. Apple's new data centre in Ireland raised concerns over energy consumption, with the Air Pollution Research & Control project Sierra Research commenting that the electrical power demand for a new data centre is enormous. There are fears that Ireland would have to increase its electrical consumption by 8.2% to run the 8 data halls that Apple aims to build. A senior engineer at Sierra Research Allan Daly, wrote in his letter: 'It is safe to say that Apple's data centre will be the largest single user of electricity within the Republic of Ireland — by far.' Since concerns are not resolved, the deal is likely to stay on hold.

Data centres remain one of the biggest issues in the way of sustainability practices as they require a lot of energy to power the cloud. The issue, though, is not about how the energy is used within data centre's premises, but the way it is generated, distributed and the efficiency losses it experiences before it reaches the point of use. Choosing the right form of power generation is critical as it will provide greater energy sustainability.

According to the Microsoft blog, all of the company's data centres are already carbon neutral because they increasingly rely on the wind, solar and hydropower electricity. So far, 44% of electricity is generated by environmentally friendly resources, and the company aims to increase it by further 6% by the end of 2018, and another 10% in the next decade. Microsoft representatives write that considering that demand for data centres will be only increasing, those goals are not insignificant.

Google made a big step towards energy reduction with the help of DeepMind, an AI startup acquired in 2014. In the last decade, Google has been actively investing in more efficient energy solutions and has been searching for better ways of cooling its data centres. DeepMind used machine learning to reduce the amount of energy used for cooling data centres by 40%, according to DeepMind's official statement. This was achieved through using a system of neural networks trained on different operating scenarios within data centres, and creating more efficient frameworks for a better understanding of data centre dynamics and its efficient optimization. Google believes that AI algorithms that the company uses can also be applied outside, meaning that others can benefit too.

Often, in order to look environmentally friendly, companies boost their renewable energy totals by purchasing renewable energy certificates. Those aim to demonstrate environmental benefits but being represented financially. Thus, it is hard to calculate the actual percentage of the energy that comes from solar panels, wind turbines or other 'green' sources. As a result, when companies claim they are 100% renewables through renewable energy certificates, they raise questions difficult to assess at face value.

According to independent research and advisory firm Lux Research- Google, Amazon and Apple rely on coal-fired power more than renewables. In order to be functional 24/7, data centres require a continuous energy supply, and so, according to Lux Research, data centres cannot entirely rely on the wind or solar energy systems and need to draw electricity from the regional power grid. It is undeniable that renewable energy is a big part of the overall energy used, but it lacks the infrastructure to be big enough to power data centres full time. If we rely on the research, then companies are often not fully transparent in their calculations and claims, meaning that renewable wealth may be still generated using fossil fuels. Ory Zik, Lux Vice President of Analytics rightly pointed out that: 'It’s time for data centre owners to bring their energy decisions the same data-driven rigor they use for the rest of their businesses.' 

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