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Will Data Centers Ever Achieve 100% Carbon-Neutral Operations?

green datacenter 

As the cloud keeps growing, so do the data centers that host it. They are bigger and more prevalent than ever before, but this comes with an environmental cost. In the face of climate change, will the world's technological infrastructure be able to adapt?

You might've heard cloud companies talk about goals of carbon neutrality, or having net-zero emissions. Becoming entirely carbon-neutral is undoubtedly a noble goal, but is it a viable one? It's possible, but it will take some considerable adjustments.

Data Centers' Environmental Impact

Carbon-neutral data centers are a lofty goal, given their substantial carbon footprint. As of 2018, they used 200 terawatt-hours of electricity, more than the entire nation of Iran. Since then, data centers and their usage have only grown, leading to even more energy consumption.

If these centers continue on their current course, they could account for 13% of global power use by 2030. Since most electricity comes from fossil fuels, all that energy translates into a substantial amount of carbon emissions. Right now, data centers generate the same amount of emissions as the air travel industry. 

Much of this energy comes from the cooling systems required to keep data centers operational. Cooling can account for more than 40% of total energy consumption, totaling more than 100 terawatt-hours a year. As global internet use surges, data centers will need even more cooling to handle the increased activity.

How Are Data Centers Pursuing Carbon Neutrality?

Thankfully, data center operators are aware of these sustainability issues and are working to correct them. Many of the world's largest cloud companies are pursuing carbon neutrality through various means. In one particularly noteworthy example, Microsoft pledged to become carbon-negative by 2030 in January. 

Since cooling is the primary source of energy consumption, it's often the focus of carbon neutrality pursuits. One of the most straightforward and popular approaches to solve this problem is to build data centers in naturally cold areas. A U.S.-Norwegian partnership started building the world's largest data center in the Arctic Circle to take advantage of the natural cold.

Temperatures in this climate linger around 26 degrees Fahrenheit, providing electricity-free cooling. Plus, recent technological developments, like pumped two-phase cooling, offer better cooling at a fraction of the energy. Alternatively, many new server racks allow for more natural airflow, increasing efficiency by design.

Carbon offsetting is another increasingly common practice among data centers. This process involves investing in green projects to cancel the effects of the company's emissions. For example, they could plant trees or build solar power facilities for every unit of fossil fuels they use.

Some corporations, like Google, use AI to improve energy efficiency within their data centers. Through predictive analytics, they can see what actions to take to reduce energy consumption. These deep neural networks can also assist workers in implementing changes.

Trending Toward a Future of Sustainability

Several external factors are encouraging data centers to pursue carbon neutrality, further increasing this trend. As climate change becomes a more prevalent threat, consumers and governments look for higher green standards from businesses. Decreasing their carbon footprint helps both the environment and their public image.

Carbon neutrality is also financially beneficial. Buildings that earn the EPA's Energy Star label use 35% less energy than those that don't. That translates to a 35% drop in electricity costs, which can amount to a substantial amount of money.

The social and economic benefits of going green are becoming more evident. As more data centers realize this, the push for carbon neutrality will grow.

Building Sustainable Data Centers

Building sustainable data centers is not a simple task by any means. Given the size of the industry, it will take a considerable amount of time to transition into 100% carbon neutrality. That said, the environmental future of these institutions looks promising.

Data centers need to take extensive action as soon as possible to have effective green efforts. If current sustainability trends continue, though, complete carbon neutrality isn't an impossible goal. 


About the Author

Kayla Matthews 

Kayla Matthews is a tech-loving blogger who writes and edits Follow her on Twitter @productibytes to read all of her latest posts! 
Published Monday, May 18, 2020 7:39 AM by David Marshall
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