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

100% renewable energy sounds great. But when you start to do the research the picture is much less clear.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

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.

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