Tech Leads the Charge in Renewables—Green Data Centers the New Norm

Grace Sweeney | Infocast Events

Solar is in the midst of a big moment, enough so to say that it’s much more than a passing trend. Corporations across all industries and nations are entering the space at unprecedented rates, and we’re even starting to see unlikely players—Shell or Walmart, for example getting into the mix, so as to not get left behind.

While the uptick in renewable adoption is certainly exciting, and offers a sliver of hope in the fight against climate change, green data is an area with lots of potential that we haven’t exactly heard much about. Big data itself has garnered a lot of attention as of late, for better or worse, but, what’s often left out of the conversation is cloud based technology is expanding exponentially and the sheer amount of raw data is astounding. As we grow ever more dependent on cloud based applications, IoT-enabled smart devices and the constant deluge of media streaming from all directions, challenges are emerging. Powering this level of data will increasingly become more difficult, not even taking into account  storage and security demands. Tech usage is increasing, while renewable energy prices continue to drop and global pressure to reduce carbon emissions is on the rise, data centers are sure to soon all be green.

Solar-Powered Data Centers—How Big Tech is Leading the Way

Back in December, Google announced a big move forward in its commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy. The internet giant added 842 megawatts of renewable energy to power its data centers, doubling the total amount of clean energy it has purchased to date.

When Google opened its first data center back in 2006, the company announced the first stages of a corporate energy initiative shortly thereafter, known as RE<C. The 2007 initiative was aimed at finding alternative electricity solutions at a lower price point than coal, or natural gas— which seemed unheard of at the time. Just a decade later, so-called “alternative” energy has gotten much cheaper, and is closer than ever to merging into the mainstream. Google’s current renewable energy projects involve contracts with big energy providers like Duke Energy, EDF and RES Americas.

Additionally, other household names—think Apple, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft have joined the green energy pursuit. AWS just signed a 13 year contract with Pattern Energy Group, a partnership that will enable the construction of a 150-megawatt wind farm, Apple’s data centers now run on 100-percent renewable energy and just last month, Microsoft announced a move to 60% renewable energy by 2018.

DIY Farms vs. PPAs from Nearby Utilities: 

As it stands, tech companies can buy renewable power from local utilities, like what Google has done, signing long-term contracts in order to provide a reliable stream of power for their data centers.  However, the question is, whether local utilities can provide enough power for these kind of arrangements, especially as the aggregated amount of data  continues to grow. Despite this looming problem, power purchase agreements (PPAs) with utilities are likely the easiest way to get the masses on board with green power. Again, large investments in renewable energy put pressure on the utilities to source alternative options, making wind or solar available to a wider range of consumers.

Alternatively, companies can buy land and farm their own wind or solar power, giving them flexibility as no contracts are needed. Yet, the issue of limited real estate space poses a real challenge, especially for those companies based in Silicon Valley, NYC or other metropolitan areas. Additionally, even when land capacity allows space for energy farms, problems emerge based on the varying output of the sun or wind conditions. If an excess of solar power is generated on a given day, energy storage will need to be addressed, and integrating batteries into the grid poses a complex challenge.

Where is the Future of Green Data Headed? 

Green data centers are certain to make the switch from being somewhat of a novelty, to a requirement for staying in the game. On the positive side, private sector partnerships with local utilities not only lower that organization’s carbon footprint on the whole, but provide support for the entire industry through high-profile investments. Yes, major utilities continue to burn coal and natural gas, but they are also investing heavily in renewables. Demand from the Apples, Googles and Facebooks of the world, in combination with federal tax credits are helping to facilitate this sea change in the energy space and speak to a broader change worldwide across all sectors.  Not to mention the trickle down effect when these deals make headlines—putting pressure on smaller businesses to get it together on the green front.  Times are changing faster than ever, and the future of data is looking green.