How Are Data Centers Cutting Carbon Emissions?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Data Centre? Is it cryptocurrency or a video streaming service? Of course, most people would feel the same. However, in reality, data centers are much more than just bitcoin or Netflix.

This blog post is about data centers' environmental effects and how they can control them.  

What Are Data Centers?

A dedicated space that houses computer systems to process, use and store data is called a data center. Data centers have a lot of IT equipment, like routers, switches, storage systems, and servers. 

Usually, the server racks organize the data centers in the form of aisles. Some other must-have ingredients for data centers are:

  • Cooling & Ventilation Systems
  • Backup Power Supplies
  • Fire Protection Systems
  • Security Systems
  • Monitoring Systems 

Computational Power & Data Centers

Yes, they are why you can easily watch your favorite season on Netflix. But their scope extends to a diverse list that includes names such as autonomous vehicles, smart cities, online banking services, and videoconferencing. So, data centers provide the immense computational power these sectors need.  

This constantly growing demand for computational power is the reason behind the rapid growth of the data centers industry. Demand for computational power is growing exponentially. Human life is going digital daily, and data centers are behind many digital and modern life aspects. 

Some examples are video conferencing, which lets us reduce our travel expenses, and other smart technologies. They are also helping us make our planet green. 

Flip Side of Coin

Yes, there always is the flip side of the coin. Data centers also consume vast amounts of energy. Data centers use 2% of the world's energy, contributing 2% of the world's CO2 emissions. The same report also reveals that the amount of carbon emissions emitted by data centers and global airlines is the same. 

So controlling the climate footprint of data centers is paramount if we have to mitigate climate change. For this purpose, Norway has become the point of attention of many eyes, but we will jump to that topic later in the article. 

How Can Data Centers Go More Energy Efficient & Cut Carbon Emissions

We know that data centers need electricity to work, just like the devices we use. However, their electricity demand is tremendously higher than a regular device you may use to browse the internet. Also, like your laptop needs a fan to avoid overheating, data centers also need cooling mechanisms.

The cooling systems of most data centers are inefficient and consume an extra amount of energy. Also, there is no mechanism to utilize the heat that cooling systems work so hard to remove. That, also, is a valuable resource.

The next problem is the usage of non-renewable electricity sources. The majority of data centers do not use renewable electricity resources. What does that mean? The video conference you just had with your boss in another time zone could have been powered by oil, gas, or coal. 

How about empowering the same zoom meeting with hydro or wind power, using more energy-efficient systems, and not letting the excess heat go to waste? Before going to the methods you can use, let us check why Norway is an ideal country. 

Advantages of Norway

Well, the credit goes to the natural resources and geography of Norway. The country is one of the largest renewable energy producers. 98% of Norway's electrical production is renewable. They also have the lowest electricity prices in Europe. Also, the climate is impressively cool for the data centers. It provides the best environment for efficient cooling and immense potential for excess heat utilization.

How could the industry ignore such unique advantages? It has perfectly captured the attention of major companies like Facebook and Microsoft. That may make a new industry out of Norway. However, Norway may have to find new natural resources for that. The local resources can turn out to be insufficient. 

Why Do Data Centers Require So Much Energy?

In simple words, it is just because of power and cooling. They require massive energy for computing. Later the energy is dissipated in a smaller area. We must keep removing heat since IT equipment is sensitive to high temperatures. Usually, the energy requirement for cooling is a big chunk of overall energy consumption in data centers. 

Several factors contribute to the energy requirements for cooling. Two examples are the cooling solution and the location of the data center. When the climate is cold, the energy required for cooling will be smaller.

What is PUE?

PUE stands for Power Usage Effectiveness. We often use it in the industry to elaborate on the efficiency of data centers. It is about the relationship between the total energy consumption of data centers and the energy consumption of IT equipment. Here are the formulae:

PUE=(total data center energy consumption)/(energy consumption of IT equipment)

It is not so tough for efficient data centers to have a PUE lesser than 1.2. But when the temperature is lower, such scores are also easy to achieve. You do not have to spend much larger energy on mechanical refrigeration systems. So, of course, Nordic countries get a natural advantage. Data centers in those countries have a PUE of  1.71. So, there is room for improvement. You can go for more cooling technologies.

Choice of Cooling Technology Can Help

Yes, an appropriate cooling system is one of the best things you can do to make everything more energy efficient. An excellent cooling system reduces energy consumption and expands the potential of utilizing excess heat. It even captures the extra heat at the highest temperatures. However, it is primarily the investment cost that drives the choice of technology.

Let us review the mainstream cooling systems that organizations use:

Air-based Cooling Systems

These systems supply cool air to the server rooms. They arrange the cold and hot aisles to control the airflow and keep hot and cold air separate. The air is not a suitable medium for heat transfer, and the reasons behind it are low heat capacity and heat transfer coefficient. It may lead to high energy consumption. You won't be able to put servers closer than a certain distance. Another result of the same issue is low excess heat temperature.

Liquid-based Cooling Systems

These systems use liquids like water to dissipate heat. One way to do it is to circulate water in microchannels and exchange the heat in cold plate heat exchangers that are directly in contact with server components. Liquid systems are liked because water has better heat transfer qualities than air. Also, these systems allow more compact data centers that use less energy for cooling and have higher excess temperatures.

Two-phase Cooling

Two-phase cooling is a relatively new and emerging form of technology. First, the liquid coolant evaporates in the cold plate heat exchanger. Then, systems store the dissipated energy as latent heat, which gives more significant heat fluxes and coolant return temperature. It also has the benefit of higher computational density.

Air-based systems are the priority of most data centers because they are cost-effective and straightforward. However, they are not very good when it comes to heat removal. That leads to higher energy consumption and lower excess heat temperatures. But the market has increased demand to build more computationally intensive data centers. Its natural outcome is the development of cooling methods that can remove more heat per area.

The liquid-based cooling systems and two-phase cooling systems are examples of that. These systems can deliver heat at 60-80°C, which can be utilized in many ways.  

So, in short, you should have these two parameters in mind when selecting the cooling technology:

  1. Heat Dissipation Rates
  2. Potential for Excess Heat Utilization

How to Utilize The Excess Heat

In the end, all electricity ends up as excess heat, regardless of how energy-efficient the data center is. Most of this heat is not used today. If you harness it, you can use it properly.

There are two good ways to utilize excess heat. First, you can directly use or convert it to another energy form. Also, you may convert it to some other better energy level. 

You may use a heat pump to increase the temperature. Another good way is to produce cooling with sorption cooling. Above all, the organic rankine cycle can help you convert to electrical power. 

How Can You Utilize Them in Urban Areas

Urban areas have great potential for the utilization of excess heat. The heat lift technology elevates the heat to the required temperature level. Experts have taken many initiatives to utilize this potential. 

One of those initiatives is data center waste heat for district heating in Oslo. Researchers are working on how urban heat sources like data centers can serve as "urban heat plants" and provide heat to local energy grids. Some other examples of urban applications are building heating and domestic hot water heating that does not require heat pumps.

What About Rural Areas

The availability of space and electrical power makes rural areas a better candidate in many situations. Also, you can use the local topography to get efficient cooling. For example, you have free cooling in the mountains and access to rivers or seawater. However, heat utilization is a little challenging due to the lack of potential urban heat recipients. 

So indeed, there is a need to raise awareness about the issue. Data centers and local authorities must know about this. Some examples of utilizing excess heat for industrial purposes are biomass processing, greenhouse food production, and land-based fish farms.

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