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Simultaneously resilient and sustainable Net Zero Data Centres

Thu 5 Nov 2020 | Susanna Kass

Over the last decade we have seen numerous individual technologies that improve energy efficiency. Now, we must create sustainable systems with them, writes Susanna Kass, Data Centre Advisor to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals program

Net Zero Data Centres are the next generation of sustainable data centres, forming the basis of clean energy infrastructure that is resilient, sustainable, and safe, as stated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.

This approach requires a rethinking of a systems approach of how we design and build new data centres. The data centre industry will require thought leaders and pioneers who lead with ambition to reach a carbon pledge of net zero (carbon, emission, and waste) as described by the UN SDG goal #9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.

Net Zero Data Centres use renewable energy as the primary power source throughout their life cycles to meet the goal of transitioning to carbon neutrality in this era. The metrics that Net Zero Data Centres use consider all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions protocols during 24/7 operation, as well as the embodied carbon used in the production and transportation of capital goods used and demolished during a data centre’s life.

These include the removal of the use of generators and power conditioning equipment used in conventional design to regulate the frequency of the power from the grid source to power the IT computer rack of expensive servers, storage, and network equipment.

The overall energy and materials resources consumed, and waste that is reduced form the Impact Analysis of a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), according to the ISO standard and the GHG Protocol for a decarbonization pathway.

Clean energy

By harnessing location-based clean energy, UN SDG #7, Affordable and Clean Energy, Net Zero Data Centres exemplify UN SDG #12, Responsible Production and Consumption. This means using the grid as a primary power source if it provides 24×7 renewable energy.

If this is not the case, Net Zero Data Centres shall generate clean energy on premise as the primary power source. This is the sustainability standard operating procedure for Net Zero Data Centres to adhere to, and the sustainability operating procedure is implemented throughout the Data Centre Life Cycle across all sites to meet corporate carbon neutral (and negative) pledges.

Providers of Net Zero Data Centres are committed to protecting the planet as part of their social responsibility, thereby benefiting the communities where the data centres are physically located. In addition, they deliver quantifiable economic development, including green jobs and economic value, to promote the UN SDG #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. The positive impact to stakeholders includes our planet, investors, customers, employees, and suppliers.

This article presents a new way of thinking about the relationship between Net Zero Data Centres providers and their stakeholders, as stated in UN SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals.

Green clouds

As 2020 has unfolded, we have seen numerous companies affirm their commitment to use renewable energy and most of the main hyperscale cloud providers provide corporate pledges to reach carbon neutrality.

This includes the Head of States for Norway and Denmark announcing a plan to ban combustion engine cars by 2025 and 2030, respectively. Sustainability has become part of these companies and countries’ brand equity as they compete to become the ‘Clean Brand’ for the Net Zero generation. It is exciting to see so many working towards a decarbonization plan to deliver net zero (carbon, emission, waste) results.

Clean Energy is a core sustainable technology requirement for Net Zero Data Centres. By integrating clean energy technologies with renewable energy infrastructure, such as renewable natural gas (RNG) and hydrogen fuel assets, we are seeing new businesses emerge to maximize the commercial economic benefits, minimize the environmental impact, deliver return on investment, and establish social governance responsibility.

Over the last decade we have seen numerous individual technologies that improve energy efficiency; now, we must create sustainable systems with them. Instead of thinking in terms of a singular clean energy technology for each data centre site, I am making a plea and introducing a new concept: Simultaneous resilience and sustainability for Net Zero Data Centres.  

Simultaneous Resilience and Sustainability

Data centres can be summed up in one word: resilience. This is the primary function of a data centre and its associated infrastructure – to maintain the uptime, to avoid unplanned downtime of its operations, and to provide the necessary capacity to support the growing demand of digital services 24/7/365.

Net Zero data centres use clean energy to achieve resilience to meet its uptime needs of 99.98% to 99.999% throughout the data centre life cycle from construction to decommission. Sustainable Software Defined Infrastructure (SSDI) is capable of scheduling cloud computing load based on uptime and access to clean energy supply on a 24/7 match.

Sustainable Data Centres should simultaneously satisfy the three-folded Net Zero requirements in zero carbon, energy, and waste metrics as well as the conventional uptime performance to maintain its Service Level Agreement (SLA) requirement of 99.8% – 99.999% for its infrastructure and cloud computing services.

Carbon Free Energy (CFE) Design

As an interconnected ecosystem, Net Zero Data Centres provide services without interruption in the event of any utility grid failures using carbon free energy on premise.

Microsoft has been running the first of this kind of carbon-free energy data centre in Seattle since 2017, at the Advanced Energy Labs. “This data centre has been running in Seattle for a few years now, we haven’t experienced one single outage of our design of using fuel cells,” said Sean James, Director of Energy Research, Microsoft at DCD Sydney opening keynote, “The Future of Energy in the Data Center”, October 6, 2020.

The distributed fuel cell architecture in the rack to generate clean energy is pioneered by Microsoft. The carbon free energy design using a 2MW IT module has a power duality functionality; therefore, it can simultaneously provide for an alternate source of energy including from energy storage, renewable fuel, hydrogen, and the electric grid.

As stated by the Uptime Institute, onsite power generation is the only reliable source of power for a data centre. However, disruptions to the utility power are not considered a failure, but rather, an expected operational condition not under control of the data centre, and for which the site must be prepared.

The utility grid often provides only dirty power and is chosen because of low cost, such as in Ashburn, Virginia. A clean energy grid is a preferred alternative, but it is not readily available nor reliable to support the resilience requirement of data centres, such as in California.

The prime providers for these clean grids are currently in locations such as the Nordics, where the power grid can guarantee multiple sources of renewable energy and is also reliable, as proven by one blackout in the past 40 years with less than 10 minutes total downtime.

Therefore, on premise carbon free power generation, such as the one implemented at Microsoft’s Advanced Energy Lab, is a viable design alternative. Using renewable natural gas (RNG) is a proven design for a grid-independent generator-less data centre.

For this design, multiple independent fuel cells are connected to the renewable natural gas distribution and they generate controllable, reliable power that can follow the power demand of the data centre anywhere. The failure of a single fuel cell has no impact on the overall power delivery to the data centre and will not affect resilience and SLA availability.

Renewable power generation has reached cost parity with the low-cost fossil fuel generation in many locations across the world. Carbon free energy (CFE) on site is also becoming affordable compared to power delivered by the grid.

The challenge is often not one related to clean energy supply availability and costs, but it is mainly linked to matching the demand schedule with the data centre load and the distribution of clean energy to the data centre’s locations. Net Zero Data Centres overcome these challenges by:

  • Building at locations with affordable renewable energy.
  • Designing CFE for on premise clean energy generation as primary source.
  • Implementing Sustainable Software Defined Control Centre for 24/7 match.
  • Adhering to Sustainable Standard Operation Procedure (SSOP) to ensure fulfilment of resilience and sustainability goals.

Carbon Free Energy generation using fuel cells can be used as the back-up power source, utilizing energy battery storage and fuel cells replacing diesel generators. For immediate to less than 8 hours duration, the design consists of using lithium ion batteries that can supply enough power to meet the data centre energy demand.

When a longer duration is required during grid outages of days are expected or caused by natural disasters like wildfires or hurricanes, it is economical to store renewable energy onsite in form of hydrogen and other renewable fuels.

Sustainable software-defined control for Net Zero Data Centres

A Sustainable Software-Defined Data Centre can give an unprecedented new level of agility and control with regards to renewable energy access.

The software platform consists of renewable energy resource supply type and capacity, emission data, 24/7 emission heat maps, chain of custody of materials, resource usage by assets, and emission types. The sustainability operation procedures ensure decarbonization targets are monitored and controlled towards reaching 24/7 and net zero (carbon, emission, waste) goals for each site.

The Sustainable Data Centre Network Operation Control Centre (SDC-NOC) provides visualization of sustainability metrics designed to quantify the holistic approach of Life Cycle Impact Analysis of resource usage efficiency including clean energy types (solar, wind, hydro-electric, renewable fuel, hydrogen, biogas) and its emission metrics into the air, water, and soil.

The model is capable of performing a simulation of sustainability best practices and resilience scenarios by site, including scheduling tradeoffs of 24/7 matching, renewable energy and fuel choices, and cost economics to the environment, society, energy tariffs by site of its respective energy market with state incentives.

The SDC-NOC provides invaluable automatic run rules of what IT load can be processed using renewable energy based on the renewable production output for 24/7 match, optimal time to process scheduled computing workload to optimize compute capacity across multiple data centre locations in an availability zone to simultaneously fulfill the resilience uptime and the resource utilization using clean energy.

It is good practice to use a Sustainability Service Operation Procedure (SSOP) handbook to train operators in new thinking, augment the conventional SOP to further define the sustainability aspects of using renewable energy, resource efficiency, waste reduction, 24/7 matching, net zero targets to achieve the sustainability operational excellence for Net Zero Data Centres. For example, the heat output from the servers is captured in a defined procedure for regeneration to other forms of usage such as food clusters and district heating for a community.

The SSOP is a resource guide that embraces the circular economy life cycle of resource consumption, production, and waste management. Each of the resources consumed by the Net Zero Data Centres has its category (energy, water, equipment, materials, waste) is monitored to achieve 24/7 matching of the IT load and the site to deliver net zero (carbon, emission, waste) goals.

Each of the resources is accounted for in the procedure guide in digital form during the operations, when reports are generated to support the GHG protocol standards. The procedure helps to provide transparency throughout the data centre lifecycle of sustainability metrics reporting to ensure decarbonization and net zero procedures are followed, it captures how resources are consumed to comply with sustainability best practices.

Sustainability Data Centre Network Operation Control (SDC-NOC) gives the visualization of emissions data and allows for control of net zero practices to achieve simultaneous resilience and sustainability goals.

The sustainability calculator is a crucial part of the characteristics of Software Defined Sustainable Net Zero Data Centres. It is time for the industry to rethink the cost of a data centre in form of Sustainability Cost of Ownership. The sustainability calculator includes the conventional costs control of a data centre site operation, additionally, it has an impact assessment of the sustainable costs to the environment and the social cost to the communities.

According to the EPA carbon equivalency, a data centre with an average load of 1 megawatt (MW) emits 7.8 million tonnes of C02 to the environment per year. Data centres throughout the US consumed 600 billion liters of water by 2020. Furthermore, 7.6 liters of water is used to generate 1 kilowatt/hour of energy consumed by data centres.

The sustainability calculator measures and gives full access to sustainability environmental and social impact as a visualization tool to actively monitor the energy source, emission data, resource of each kilowatt consumed per site to the sustainability administrators and data centre operators.

The sustainability scenarios can be modeled based on simultaneous fulfillment of data centre resiliency of 99.8%-99.999% and the sustainability cost to the environment and social costs at each phase of the data centre life cycle. This can be used to reduce costs, minimize the impact to the environment, and freely innovate clean energy choices made to bring together best-in-class sustainability and resilience for compute, storage, and networking.

Along with a comprehensive sustainability operating environment, a Net Zero Data Centres can dynamically run, manage, decarbonize applications workload across multiple data centre, multi-clouds, Internet of Things, and Edge Computing devices of any kind that will minimize the resource impact such as water, energy and materials.

Case Study – Energy Symbiosis at Boden, Sweden

Net Zero Data Centres are designed considering the integration of its infrastructures in the power, water, waste, and mobility infrastructures of a circular economy. For Boden, Sweden, it all started with the natural environment where the Lulea river provides the hydroelectric power for the grid with renewable energy sources to the town. The Net Zero Data Centres situated at Boden have PUE’s as low as 1.012.

These data centres receive clean power availability at an affordable pricing of less than 0.04 €/kWh. The town is a Circular Economy community, and it promotes economic development of energy intensive business. Net Zero Data Centres operators can get permits in days, qualify for attractive tax incentives, and receive energy rebates by the Swedish government.

The city of Boden has, over the years, invested heavily into a sustainable energy system where energy sources such as hydro, biogas, and district heating are connected and thereby create synergies from new energy and material flows between the existing, energy intensive, industries. This energy symbiosis is supported by the Swedish Energy Agency which selected the city of Boden as a strategy node for developing a flexible and robust energy system.

Heat is the main by-product output of all data centres on a minute-to-minute basis. Each site generates heat from its computing. Instead of wasting this massive amount of heat by dumping it into the air, it is captured to reuse for district heating and to new greenhouses and fish farms.

This provides warmth during cold weather, therefore reducing the necessary energy to heat the homes, offices, and industrial buildings. It can also give rise to food clusters, thus allowing for more food to be produced locally in a more sustainable and affordable way.

We use water usage efficiency (WUE) as a measure of how much, or how little, water a data centre consumes during operation. With the next generation of liquid and immersion cooling technology the water consumption of a data centre can be reduced by more than 90 percent in comparison to conventional air-cooling systems.

Infraprime, in collaboration with the Boden Business Agency, provide best practice circu-lytics. Given that the on-site generation with hydrogen and fuel cells produces water as a byproduct, we can now design a Net Zero Data Centres with a negative WUE, providing water to the community.

In return, communities which have established an extensive waste recycling system can use waste-to-gas technologies to deliver the renewable gas to power the fuel cells of Net Zero Data Centres.

The used equipment that is decommissioned from data centres each year is massive in volume. The standard industry practice today is that in-rack IT equipment is refreshed every three to five years. This has resulted in over two million tons of e-waste every year coming from used equipment in data centres.

This is egregious on multiple levels, as this equipment is composed of precious metals which can leach toxic materials in landfills and generally still has functional components within the electronic machines that are discarded. Used equipment from Net Zero Data Centres is designed to reduce IT equipment waste and be kept in Boden to give it perpetual life use.

Looking beyond

Net Zero Data Centres depend on renewable energy sources such as sunlight, hydro, and wind instead of fossil fuels to achieve net-zero carbon and emission. Nature inspires the concept of circular economy where resources are valued the most. Every element of nature is continuously in use by turning waste into resources repeatedly, using principles such as reduction, reuse, remanufacture, recycle to regenerate used resources and by-products into perpetual use.

Net Zero Data Centres act as creators to provide resilience and sustainable infrastructures, the interconnectedness of the Net Zero Data Centres work in a collective manner to harmonize its functions as a shared economy to promote and exemplify the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I’m grateful to all the data centre leaders who include our planet as a stakeholder in our digital infrastructure world, alongside customers, employees, and shareholders. We, data centre leaders, can collaborate as an industry to uphold our reputation as innovators and lead with ambition through a sustainable journey in our transition to a clean energy infrastructure.

Ultimately, it is insufficient to measure a data centre by uptime, cost efficiency, and time to market. Each day, billions of dollars are spent on materials to build new data centres and used materials are placed in landfills. Full transparency into data centre lifecycles are part of our social responsibility.

Measurements of success must include triple zero (carbon, emission, waste) metrics, social cost of ownership, and sustainable materials lifecycle management plans. All of this ultimately delivers 24×7 matching for each kilowatt hour consumed and the societal improvements to the problems facing society today, which, in turn, will give rise to circular economy communities.

Experts featured:

Susanna Kass

Data Center Advisor
UN Sustainable Development UNEP DTU Partnership


net-zero sustainability
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