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The digital world demands electricity — and lots of it.

And that voracious appetite for power is a huge headache for the industry tasked with building the central nervous system for the artificial intelligence age.

Chalk it up to bad timing. As the IT industry (and its power demand) expands, the world is wrestling with the need to use less power and make a historic transition away from fossil fuel use.

National governments are grappling with ways to encourage more efficient energy use and provide new, emission-free sources of power. With projections from the International Energy Agency showing data center electricity usage doubling in four years, the creation of a new source of massive power demand has the potential to move the needle in the wrong direction.

Image Credit: International Energy Agency

For data center developers it all comes down to power — how to get it, how much of it to get, where to get it from, and how to reduce how much power these data centers need.

In the U.S., home to the largest collection of data centers in the world, data center development is concentrated in Northern Virginia, a region serviced by the utility Dominion Energy, which generates half of its total power from fossil fuel sources. In North Carolina, another growing market for data center development, the state utility is pushing back on its initial decarbonization plans citing growing energy demand (with the bulk of that new demand coming from data centers).

Beyond decarbonization concerns, regulators around the world are grappling with just how many data centers their grids can sustain. In Ireland, there are projections that energy demand from data centers could reach over 20% of the nation’s total energy demand.

Image Credit: JLL, Structure Research

To ensure that the industry can sustainably meet demand, data center developers are exploring almost every option, but four approaches that stand out are:

  • a shift to more modular data center design
  • the on-site (or contracted) use of zero-emission power
  • energy efficiency measures to consume less power
  • finding ways to reuse heat and power.

Modularity in the data center

Designing a data center to scale as its power demand scales is one of the ways that firms can future-proof their data center. Building for existing capacity and planning space for capacity increases means that data centers can take advantage of the best available tools while leaving options open for future innovations.

According to one analyst, data centers are often designed and built for their maximum capacity well before that capacity and electricity demand is ever met. Rather than locking in infrastructure, building out as needed can have advantages.

On-site energy and 24/7 Clean Power Purchase Agreements

With grid interconnection bottlenecks throttling the ability of new renewable power to come online, many data center developers are looking for their own sources of power generation — or expanding locations where massive renewable sources of power already exist.

While most developers are turning to develop more solar and wind resources, many are looking at next generation nuclear sources as well.

These aren’t just the moonshot projects like Microsoft’s power purchase agreement with nuclear fusion technology developer Helion, but next generation small modular reactors with generating capacities ranging in size from 5 megawatts to 500 megawatts of power. Startup innovators like Oklo Inc, Kairos Power, are developing novel small reactor systems along with big companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy

Other zero-emission power sources could come from hydrogen, like the newly announced project from Honda, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is using old electrolyzers to power a small data center operation as a test case in Japan.

Meanwhile, Google is working with the blockchain developer FlexiDAO to ensure that it’s matching its power consumption to renewably generated energy sources. The 24×7 PPAs guarantee any clean energy paid for is matched metered electricity from a large customer. As DatacenterDynamics reported, Microsoft is also working on 24/7 PPAs with Vattenfallin Sweden.

Energy efficiency

As the International Energy Agency notes in their most recent report, the primary drivers of data center electricity demand are cooling systems and servers, which account for 40% of total consumption.

Another 20% of power demand comes from the supply system, storage devices and communication equipment.

High efficiency cooling, likely evolving away from liquid immersion cooling to the kind of direct-to-chip systems offered by companies like Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc., Asetek, JETCOOL Technologies Inc., and ZutaCore, will probably be a feature of the modern data center — especially as power demand increases due to 5G and AI advancements.

And these same technologies that are increasing the overall demand for electricity may be used to find greater efficiencies by optimizing adaptability in different operating scenarios. Google claims it has used DeepMind AI to reduce the electricity demand of its data center cooling systems by 40%, according to the IEA Electricity Report.

Using Waste Heat

If data center developers find alternative uses for waste heat, that presents another opportunity for the industry to offset emissions and potentially defray the costs of efficiency measures.

Working with Equinix, ENGIEhas a project to supply district heating to the Plaine Commune Energie heating network outside of Paris — just in time for the next Olympic games hosted in the region.

Meanwhile, Stockholm Data Parks, a partnership between the city of Stockholm, energy company Stockholm Exergi, grid operators Ellevio and others, will produce 10% of the heat required to meet Stockholm’s warming needs by 2035, according to an Axios report.

Still other scenarios would use waste heat from data centers to enable the direct air capture of carbon dioxide — an increasingly important part of global net-zero plans.

Through an investment from Sergey Brin’s Catalyst4, a new startup called Earth280 uses waste heat from data centers to do just that. The company is building its pilot facility next to a Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon, according to a report in Bloomberg.

The Future of Sustainable Data Centers

The demand curve for data center growth and power consumption looks more and more like a hockey stick than anything else. As distributed computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, the Internet of Things, and other innovations drive more demand for computing power, the problem of energy demand in the data center will remain the constraint on the industry’s growth.

As policy moves in the European Union and some U.S. states makes clear, regulators and communities are turning a more critical eye on the industry and its growth.

At the same time, the demands of the information technology industry will ensure that growth will continue. These pressures are putting data center developers in a vise, and the only way to avoid cracking under the pressures is to pursue as many decarbonization strategies as possible and maintain as much flexibility in designing for future power needs as possible.

Boosting energy efficiency, and ensuring zero emission energy sources are accessible for a site’s power demand needs are crucial.

The pressures for data center developers are increasing — but the suite of solutions accessible to the industry are expanding just as rapidly. The time to deploy them is now.

Emerald Strategy Partners Associate, Iyerusalem Negash, and Advisor, Leland Sparks, contributed to this article.