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05 Nov 2020

Simultaneously Resilient and Sustainable Net Zero Data Centers

Susanna Kass, Data Center Advisor at UN Sustainable Development UNEP DTU Partnership

Net Zero Data Centers are the next generation of sustainable data centers. The approach requires a rethinking of a systems approach of how we design and build new data centers. The data center 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.

Thought Leadership - Net Zero Data Centers and UNSDG Goals

Net Zero Data Centers are the next generation of sustainable data centers, which will form the basis of clean energy infrastructure that is resilient, sustainable, and safe as stated in the United Nation Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.[1] The approach requires a rethinking of a systems approach of how we design and build new data centers. The data center 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.[2]  Net Zero Data Centers 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 Centers 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 center’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.

 

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Figure 1. Data Centers Life Cycle Decarbonization Pathway

By harnessing location-based clean energy, the UN SDG #7, Affordable and Clean Energy, Net Zero Data Centers exemplify UN SDG #12, Responsible Production and Consumption. This means using the grid as a primary power source if it provides 24x7 renewable energy. If this is not the case, Net Zero Data Centers shall generate clean energy on premise as the primary power source. This is the sustainability standard operating procedure for Net Zero Data Centers to adhere to, and the sustainability operating procedure is implemented throughout the Data Center Life Cycle across all sites to meet corporate carbon neutral (and negative) pledges.

The providers of Net Zero Data Centers are committed to protecting the planet as part of their social responsibility, thereby benefiting the communities where the data centers 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.[3] 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 Centers providers and their stakeholders, as stated in UN SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals.[4]

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As 2020 has unfolded, we have seen numerous companies affirm their commitment to use renewable energy and 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.[1] 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 Centers. 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 center site, I am making a plea and introducing a new concept: Simultaneous Resilience and Sustainability for Net Zero Data Centers. 

Simultaneous Fulfilment of Resilience and Sustainability

Data Centers can be summed up in one word: resilience. This is the primary function of a data center 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 Centers use clean energy to achieve resilience to meet its uptime needs of 99.98% to 99.999% throughout the data center life cycle from construction to decommission. The 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. The author suggests Sustainable Data Centers shall 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.

As an interconnected ecosystem, Net Zero data centers provide services without interruption in the event of any utility grid failures using carbon free energy on premise design illustration of Microsoft and InfraPrime.

Carbon Free Energy (CFE) Design

Microsoft has been running the first of this kind of carbon free energy data center in Seattle since 2017, at the Advanced Energy Labs. “This data center 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 by Sean James, Director of Energy Research, Microsoft at DCD Sydney opening keynote, “The Future of Energy in the Data Center”, October 6, 2020.

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Figure 2. From Left to Right: Sean James (Director of Energy Research at Microsoft), Christian Belady (Vice President at Microsoft), Alberto Ravagni (Infraprime Managing Director). Pioneering proof of concept: Microsoft‘s Advanced Energy Lab in Seattle mentioned in the Whitepaper “Designing and Building the Next generations of Sustainable Data Centers” on www.sdg-dc.com

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.

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Figure 3. Left: 2 MW module with dual power input using renewable natural gas for the fuel cells and grid power as back-up. Right: Rack and fuel cell on the same footprint.[5]

As stated by the Uptime Institute,[6] onsite power generation is the only reliable source of power for a data center. However, disruptions to the utility power are not considered a failure, but rather, an expected operational condition not under control of the data center, 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 Centers, 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 center. 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 center anywhere. The failure of a single fuel cell has no impact on the overall power delivery to the data center 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 center load and the distribution of clean energy to the data centers locations. Net Zero Data Centers 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 Center 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 center 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 Centers

A Sustainable Software-Defined Data Center can give an unprecedented new level of agility and control for Data Center to have access to renewable energy. 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 Center Network Operation Control Center (SDC-NOC), figure 4 below, 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 center locations in an availability zone to simultaneously fulfill the resilience uptime and the resource utilization using clean energy.

Furthermore, it is a good practice to use a Sustainability Service Operation Procedure (SSOP) handbook to train the operators in a 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 Centers. For example, the heat output from the servers are 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 center 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 center 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.

 

 

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Figure 4. Sustainability Data Center Network Operation Control (SDC-NOC) gives the visualization of emissions data of Data Center 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 Center. It is time for the industry to rethink the cost of a data center in form of Sustainability Cost of Ownership. The sustainability calculator includes the conventional costs control of a data center 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 center with an average load of 1 megawatt (MW) emits 7.8 million tonnes of C02 to the environment per year. Data Centers 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 centers.[1]

 

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 center operators. The sustainability scenarios can be modeled based on simultaneous fulfillment of data center resiliency of 99.8%-99.999% and the sustainability cost to the environment and social costs at each phase of the data center 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 center can dynamically run, manage, decarbonize applications workload across multiple data centers, 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 Centers 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 Centers situated at Boden have PUE’s as low as 1.012.[2] These data centers 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 center operators can get permits in days, qualify for attractive tax incentives, and receive energy rebates by the Swedish government.

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Figure 5. Net Zero Data Centers designed by InfraPrime and others harmonize with the circular economy community at Boden.

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.[1]

Heat is the main by-product output of all data centers 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 green houses 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 center consumes during operation. With the next generation of liquid and immersion cooling technology the water consumption of a data center can be reduced by more than 90% 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 center 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 Centers.

The used equipment that is decommissioned from data centers 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[2] coming from used equipment in data centers. 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 Centers are designed to reduce IT equipment waste and be kept in Boden to give it perpetual life use.

Looking Beyond

Net Zero Data Centers 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 (Korhonen et al., 2018). 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 Centers act as creators to provide resilience and sustainable infrastructures, the interconnected of the Net Zero Data Centers work in a collectively manner to harmonize its functions as a shared economy to promote and exemplify the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

  • #7 Affordable Clean Energy 
  • #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth 
  • #9 Industry Innovation and Infrastructure
  • #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • #12 Responsible Consumption and Production
  • #13 Climate Action

 

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Figure 6. The UN SDG banner, showing all 17 goals for us to improve the world.

The author is grateful to all the data center leaders who include our planet as a stakeholder in our digital infrastructure world, alongside customers, employees, and shareholders. We, data center 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. We apply circular economics throughout the lifecycle of data centers to harmonize with circular communities. There is a strong business case for tackling Climate Change and supporting the UN SDG goals throughout data center lifecycles.

 

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Figure 7. Net Zero Data Center lifecycles can be made circular to promote sustainability and tie into our material world.

It is insufficient to measure a data center by uptime, cost efficiency, and time to market. Each day, billions of dollars are spent on materials to build new data centers and used materials are placed in landfills. The author recommends full transparency in data center lifecycles as 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 24x7 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.

The climate crisis has arrived. It is time to take action. Do not do the status quo. Do not ponder one more day and be sorry for our next generations.

 

 

[1] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/cities/

[2] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/infrastructure-industrialization/

[3] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/economic-growth/

[4] https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/globalpartnerships/

[5] https://theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/Combustion-engine-phase-out-briefing-may11.2020.pdf

[6] From DCD Sydney opening keynote, “The Future of Energy in the Data Center” by Sean James, Director of Energy Research, Microsoft.

[7] In their published document Data Center Site Infrastructure Tier Standard: Topology https://uptimeinstitute.com/publications/asset/tier-standard-topology

[8] Source: United States Data Center Energy Usage Report, LBNL, 2019

[9] As measured at the time of writing from: https://bodentypedc.eu/btdc-one/the-data-centre

[10] https://bodentypedc.eu/news-calendar/news/21--btdc-partners-with-arctiq-dc-to-experiment-waste-heat-utilization

[11] https://www.supermicro.com/en/white-paper/datacenter-report

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