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The Key to Reducing Data Center Energy Consumption While Meeting Colossal Power Demands? Masterplanning.

May 9, 2024

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As one of the most power-hungry industries on the planet, the data center sector has a unique challenge and an incredible opportunity to influence future sustainability gains around the globe. Within that industry, hyperscalers — the world’s largest tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon — have been aggressively leading the charge toward shrinking data center energy consumption with an ultimate goal of net-zero.

But even with all the gains made by hyperscalers — and there have been many creative solutions implemented in recent years — more still needs to be done.

In the recently published book, “Greener Data – Volume Two,” CleanArc’s Senior VP of Energy & Power Contracting, Bill Thomas, tackles the thorny topic of how hyperscalers can meet surging power capacity demands while advancing carbon neutrality and community and utility partnerships. The book brings together 52 industry thought leaders from around the globe giving their take on the digital infrastructure industry’s progress toward a greener digital future. 

A New Approach to Data Center Development

It’s an understatement, according to Thomas, to say that the industry needs to rethink data center planning. In fact, a completely different approach is necessary. Operators have to take scale to new heights while also delivering very intentional power sourcing. 

The key? Masterplanning. 

“The next generation of data center planning must identify the best locations to build, incorporate deep collaboration with local authorities and power providers, and ultimately revise the way power contracting has been done in the past,” Thomas wrote. “Current data center demand simply does not fit the old paradigm. The next generation of hyperscale data centers needs to be master planned, with sustainability baked in from the beginning.”

How Did We Get Here? A Little History

In his chapter, “How Masterplanning Data Centers Meets the Needs of Hyperscalers, Local Communities and Utilities,” Thomas recalls when rising numbers of data centers and their significant power demands began to draw interest about a decade ago. In one example, he cited Greenpeace’s annual report on information and communication technology (ICT) energy usage, which shined a spotlight on the growing power demands of tech companies and their considerable carbon footprint. 

“It was a wake-up call to the industry and provided a massive opportunity for renewable energy developers,” said Thomas. 

Hyperscalers began incentivizing the development of new renewable energy projects, bringing significant gigawatts of new clean energy capacity onto electric grids every year.

While this helped to offset a hyperscaler’s annual data center energy consumption on a broad basis, those companies got even more ambitious. Over the last few years, the goal has shifted to operating all of their data centers using carbon-free energy.

Google, for example, is aiming for net-zero emissions across its operations and value chain by 2030, while Microsoft Cloud has pledged to run its data center fleet entirely on renewable energy by 2025.

As it stands now, hyperscalers can — and do — buy as much renewable energy from various sources as they consume in total. “Which sounds great, but it doesn’t tell the full story,” said Thomas. “They end up with solutions that address their annual electricity consumption, but not their hourly consumption.” Renewable energy intermittency plays a major role here, he explained, referring to the source’s unpredictable power fluctuations (e.g., the sun doesn’t always shine). As a result, hyperscalers must still rely on fossil fuels to fill in the gaps. 

Hyperscalers, meanwhile, are keenly aware and concerned about the hourly consumption issue.  As a result, their energy goals have recently shifted from just offsetting their annual consumption, in general, to mitigating the carbon footprint in all of their data centers on an hourly basis in the regions where they operate, noted Thomas. This is the same approach incorporated into CleanArc’s solution. 

“While virtual PPAs and renewable energy certificates have shown progress toward reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, reductions will only truly happen when renewable energy is generated from the same grid to the data centers, which is why that’s a central component of  CleanArc’s solution,” said Thomas.

An Unquenchable Thirst for Data 

In the midst of a climate crisis, the world’s data usage is escalating at an unbelievable pace. With the onset of cloud computing and, most recently, the entrance of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies, data center bandwidth power capacity requirements are soaring. Thomas personally believes AI alone will add at least 25% to hyperscaler capacity demand beyond established projections.

Due to these swift changes, the dimensions of next-generation facilities will need to be on a scale the market hasn’t even contemplated before. It wasn’t too long ago that facilities of 5-20 MW were considered massive. CleanArc’s prototype facility is more than three times the large end of that range, and the team is envisioning four or more of those facilities per campus. 

“The only way to responsibly develop data centers of this magnitude is via a thorough masterplanning process that includes identifying a suitable location where electricity needs can be met. It’s not only a question of utility providers being capable of handling the load, but also of how to supplement that power source with a comprehensive renewable energy portfolio.”

Powering Hyperscalers’ Clean Energy Transition 

CleanArc was launched in January 2023 to offer a different approach to the hyperscale data center industry: fully packaged data center turnkey program management and design and construction with loads of room to grow, all bundled with operational commissioning and robust power structuring. 

In creating this innovative solution, CleanArc has been working with local utilities and renewable energy developers in their planned data center development areas to create a comprehensive portfolio that approximates a facility’s consumption. 

“Our goal is to deliver more green electrons and displace more fossil sources because the portfolio varies in technology, leveraging a combination of wind and solar and potentially battery storage and hydro, if available,” he wrote. 

Another key element of CleanArc’s offering is choosing development sites where there’s a nexus of community support, utility-scale power, and availability. “The CleanArc model, which we believe is the secret to responsibly answering hyperscalers’ call, is all about delivering a solution for all stakeholders,” said Thomas. In order to do that, he noted, “the masterplan is the key.”

If you’d like to read Thomas’ chapter in full or explore those of the other authors, “Greener Data – Volume Two” is available from Amazon here

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