Is a 100% green datacenter practical, or even plausible?

Is a 100% green datacenter practical, or even plausible?

Summary: 100% renewable energy sounds great. But when you start to do the research the picture is much less clear.


Working hard to keep up their public face of being the company concerned about the environment, Apple seems to be making themselves the standard bearer for green power for the datacenter.  After constant negative publicity from Greenpeace on the use of power from non-green sources, Apple is taking the approach that a commitment to green power will be a major win, at least in the field of public opinion.

Tim Cook has been quoted as saying that datacenter operators need to lead the charge to cleaner power, and that simply building more efficient datacenter isn't enough; they also need to be working to get power providers to become greener in their choice of power generation technologies.

Of course, the approach that Apple is taking is to reduce and potentially remove the utility companies from the equation altogether. At their North Carolina facility they will have no less than 250 acres of solar panels eventually installed, capable of supplying over 8 Mw of power. Combined with bio-gas powered Bloom energy fuel cells, Apple expects to be able to generate 60 percent of their needed power on-site. And they are committing to source the remaining required power from green energy sources. Of course, if they can find a way to generate the remaining 40% of power necessary they would be completely off the grid, which would give them much better control over the OPEX associated with purchasing power, and is definitely a worthy goal.

Apple isn't the only company hopping on the solar bandwagon for datacenter power; other far less well known organizations have started building or committed to deploying solar panels, though on a much smaller scale. It's easy to understand their hesitation; not many organizations can afford the investment necessary to generate power on the levels that Apple is planning. Smaller datacenter operators aren't as flush with cash as Apple. And frankly, I'm sure that many players are sitting on the sidelines, focused on building facilities that are as efficient as possible, and far less concerned about the source of their power.

Less than 15% of the power generated in the US is from completely renewable sources, and while there seem to be a lot of people who would be happy to turn the area from the Mississippi to the Rockies into a collection of wind farms and solar panel sites, the folks that live there might have a few objections.

The largest source of completely renewable power, hydro-electric, is limited by the number of rivers that can be utilized to provide the power. In the US, there are few places left that would be good locations for a dam and powerplant. And the environmental issues that would need to be addressed would mean that we are looking at years, if not decades, before a new hydro-electric generating system could be brought on-line.

About 70% of the power generated in the US comes from non-renewable sources that involve burning something (coal and natural gas). That is a huge amount of power to replace, especially when you are looking to replace it with less efficient means of power generation. Nuclear power is a non-starter in the US, which leaves us with technologies such as wind, solar, and geo-thermal.  Bio-gas has proved to be practical, but we simply don't generate enough waste gas to replace more than a small percentage of LNG and coal-fired power.

Wind and solar power installations suffer from a huge case of NIMBY; you don't see mainstream people volunteering to have installations of either technology placed next to their homes, or even in line of sight (but they are happy to have them installed in someone else's backyard).

Building the most energy efficient datacenter practical for your needs makes sense. Letting the availability of sufficient renewable energy to power that datacenter should be much further down the list of practical concerns. Worldwide, roughly 20% of power generated comes from renewable sources. Datacenters use less than 2% of the total power generation worldwide (though slightly over 2% in the US).

If you really want to campaign for renewable energy in datacenters, don't just complain about the use of fossil fuels; provide alternatives that can be implemented now, not ones that require decades of rebuilding of the entire power generation infrastructure of the world. Practical, technology driven solutions that have a business advantage will result in organic deployment of those solutions.  Just about anything else will result in little more than PR announcements and little real change.

Topics: Hardware, Apple, CXO, Data Centers, Storage

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Here is an alternative

    Data centers are stupendous wasters of energy. They consume a huge amount of power to run their equipment and then dump the resultant heat into the atmosphere. They consume yet more power to run the air conditioners. To top it off many centers require furnaces to heat the buildings in the winter.

    Most of that waste can be avoided by managing the heat flow. That greatly reduces the total consumption of energy and the resultant GHG emissions. It can also reduce the operating costs by millions of dollars. The means of storing and managing the heat are well established but are rarely employed, primarily because the potential users are not familiar with the idea.
    • Yes its still a up hill battle but we are still marching on.

      Electrical and mechanical and civil engineering in a Data center and financial decisions are made within disciplines. A holistic engineering finical economic concept that transcends the system boundary for the center is the mental block. There is no one trained for the job! If we trained some one who would know to use him? If you don't know this is what you need your not going to look at it this way. Looks like you have thought the Data center through it is just a place to start as all the goodness is sooo easy to pick up and use. I wish I knew who to talk to about things like this. Altotus
  • "After constant negative publicity from Greenpeace on the use of ...

    ... power from non-green sources, Apple"

    This is typical mistake. Greenpeace [i]loves[/i] to take credit for things that were decided [b]before[/b] their rants even started. It was said over year ago that both of Apple's biggest data centers will have all-renewable power by this time.

    This is similar to Apple's subcontractors' workers conditions issue. Apple said last year that they plan to join Fair Labour association that would do even more inspections (though Apple already did more inspection than any other company) [b]before[/b] any petitions, civil rights groups rants and the latest round of NYT's tabloidish manipulative articles appeared. Yet all of those parasites get credit for "forcing" Apple into more inspections and reports.

    That said, all of the media pressure still good. The bad thing is that since Apple is the biggest, the parasites go only on Apple, even though it is by facts better than lesser companies in those field that it gets critiqued for.
  • In which Newton rolls over in his grave

    [ul][i]100% renewable energy sounds great[/i][/ul]Only to people who never heard of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
    Robert Hahn
    • Newton didn't develop thermodynamics

      At his time, only classic physics was being studied. You must refer to Schroedinger, Einstein and their colleague's graves...
      • History

        Carnot Kevin and Gibbs had a lot to do with thermodynamics.
    • Except you've misunderstood the reference

      In this context it refers to getting all of the datacenter power from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Nothing to do with thermodynamics.
      David Chernicoff
      • What a strange comment!

        If you use 1MWh of electricity to run your equipment you still have 1MWh of energy left to put to good use - it is now in a different form but there is just as much energy still available. If you dump it into the atmosphere then you are wasting about 1.3MWh of energy after allowing for the power needed to run the heat pumps. That means that thermodynamics is in fact the primary factor to consider in minimizing the energy consumption and GHG emissions.
      • You think its not in context of renewable resource?

        The source of energy is less important than the fact that it is dissipated when it could be recycled. The energy recycled as a hot water stream would displace watt for watt hot water produced by fossil energy. 60% of the energy in this country is produced is for heating, a low level heat at that. If a data center driven by clean solar etc. recycles its thermal loss ( thats a commodity that can be sold) as a usable stream that means that it can displace fossil energy usage as well in other words 2 birds with one stone you have doubled the utility of every watt out of the array this fundamentally changes the economy of the whole process. The underlaying argument for green power is perhaps driving the comments. Practical useful pays for itself yes thermodynamics matters. Systems thought matters. Begin with system and do the energy balances. Data activity + vapor re-compression to remove the heat of the data operation = total energy consumption. This is doable. Cuts the cost factor eh? And the 100% green argument as recycling displaces the fossil energy used for hot water. A plant can be located in the vicinity of the Data center regardless (almost but data centers are near backbones right?) of locality that can use the output stream $$$. Oh yes the energy of the plant using the hot water can possibly be reused in biogas (low level heat rejected may be at a level good for biological organisms) another displacement of fuel and more bang for the watt.
        You must understand that in the past energy was not thought of a recyclable due to costs now cost can drive efficiency.
    • Home work assignment

      Know all about the second law you refer to delta S and you refer to thermodynamic power cycles. A use of a stream at its temperature level directly without conversion can be considered. Hot water a universal thing that consumes most of the power on the planet to be produced. Let me point out what some of the posters are speaking of here. A Data center uses power, almost every single watt degraded to thermal energy. 1 MW in 1 MW out of that 1 MW approx 70-80 % is Data and 20-30 % cooling. Green in the recent past has centered on the cooling energy and power sources. Actually the schemes Ive seen so far are short of what can be done. As some of the posters here suggest almost total use of output stream (minus pumping loss approx 5 - 10 % ) I am prepared to go anywhere and discuss this ex-temporally with anyone who wants to hear. Altotus

      Were talking over 2% (perhaps 5% suggested by other sources) of the net grid output .

      Figure that out as a homework problem in terms of dollars per year and tons of coal per year.

      Actually we are not using a Carnot cycle to drive shaft work here so Carnot efficiency is irrelevant to this system thus the efficiency in terms of work of a data center is 0%.
  • Green is big $$$ to be had read on

    Its not just Data centers its every thermal mechanical conversion on earth. 60 to 80% of the heat energy is rejected as "waste" many attempts to use this energy ignore thermodynamic constraints however there is a very simple and straight forward concept I have not seen published as perhaps it is so simple and intuitive. That is that the rejected heat be used in systems that are useful at the temperature of the output. Consider what this means: cut energy use in half for production. As for data centers I could engineer a system to cut energy cost to a fraction of current cost in about 3 to 4 months any takers? You heard it here. I am not going to knock on any doors not any more. There is a use for any temperature stream. Get busy or be useless. I an not selling sunglasses just offering the future of humanity to any likely takers at no charge. You read it here. Altotus
  • "Green" is more than just energy consumption

    Solar panels, windmills, hydropower... all require manufacturing processes that may not be entirely green. The building requires manufacturing processes that may may not be entirely green. The servers themselves require materials and manufacturing processes that may not be entirely green.

    100% green is a myth. Even my organic vegetable garden is not 100% green, because I had to obtain seeds that were transported.

    Besides it's hard to take Greenpeace very seriously: they own and use boats, which is one of the most notoriously polluting forms of transportation on the planet, especially outboard motors.