Cloud Data Centers Have A Little (Dirty Air) Secret

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File it under the “you’d never thought of it unless you knew how energy backup data centers work.” We rarely talk about data centers and the amount of energy they use, nor how it’s used. What we talk even less about is how their backup data center generators work, are maintained, and are powered on a monthly basis. Hold onto to your hats, because it’s a stinky business.

STAX XGEN data center

Data Center Energy Backup Has a Serious Climate Impact and Pollution Problem

Many years ago, Bob Sarp, owner and founder of STAX Engineering, and I were talking about the future of energy systems. Back then, the conversation was around whether or not hydrogen fuel cells would be practical energy systems or if methane would take over, or would batteries be a better alternative to power his innovative scrubber barge system? One thing we talked about was how data centers were painting a green face with seemingly no one talking about their energy use and maintenance.

According to my latest discussion with Bob, data centers such as Google’s, Amazon’s, Microsoft’s and the like use a lot of on-demand energy. Data centers need that energy to be readily available at any time. While most companies try to use as much renewable energy as possible, when they need it, diesel’s got their back, and they need it often. Cloud computing requires 100% uptime, which means using a lot of diesel. Think of your last Google search or using Gmail, or watching that funny Facebook video. How would you feel if it failed to deliver because the sun wasn’t shining at that particular moment?

In order to ensure 100% uptime, almost all data centers need a large array of standby diesel generators (gensets). Those diesel gensets kick in during a power outage.

The Problem With Diesel Gensets & Their Climate Impact

The problem is that gensets require monthly maintenance and testing procedures. They need to be fired up monthly for that alone. In order to offer 100% data uptime, they also provide backup energy to other entities, such as utilities, microgrids, and large hospitals. Diesel gensets still have a solid niche in the market because they are cheap and affordable for the service they provide. But they come with own problems that have disastrous consequences on the environment.

Bob told me about 75,000 MW of land-based gensets spread out throughout the US. Their 100% reliability means they must be started, operated, and exercised 1–2 hours every month. If not, they can get clogged up. Worse yet, it can take close to a month to test each genset location, details depending on size. If they are not regularly tested, they can fail to start. To make things worse, data centers clump next to each other to share electricity access. That condenses the pollution, exacerbating the problem. But wait, it gets worse.

The other more insidious problem is that companies prefer older gensets. New gensets have pollution treatment systems that are more advanced, but that means they suffer reliability issues when only used as backups. Cheaper, older gensets have higher and often visible emissions during their monthly tests. Since most businesses favor short-term ROI over long-term global benefits, it leaves future generations to clean up this greedy mess.

STAX Engineering To The Temporary Rescue With The XGEN

STAX XGEN data center STAX XGEN data center

One of the perks my vocation has is that I get to talk to the most fascinating people on this planet. And Bob is one of those bright minds. I’ve known him for many years and know where his priorities are. Bob finds simple and elegant solutions to our current problems for pennies on the dollar.

Bob Sarp’s new brainchild is the XGEN™. Using the same concept as his STAX Engineering arm, which significantly cuts sea vessels’ emissions, the XGEN brings the idea to land for data centers and transportation. The patent-pending truck-mounted system can now be used for standby gensets.

Essentially, the XGEN uses one or two container-sized units on a clean truck. When data center backups are scheduled for testing, an XGEN pulls up to the standby gensets and connects to its offending exhaust. But, Bob wasn’t satisfied with that. The XGEN can also capture CO2 from the exhaust and convert it to fertilizer that can be used by local farmers.

STAX XGEN data center STAX XGEN data center STAX XGEN data center STAX XGEN data center

The XGEN burns the hydrocarbon chains down to close to 100%, according to Bob. I’ve seen the STAX technology up close after Bob worked on the first implementations a decade ago. It is impressive in its simplicity. The trick is in the know-how, something Bob and his team have mastered well over a decade. Since then, the efficiency has been raised and its footprint reduced.

Overall, this means sea vessels, land vehicles, and land-bound gensets can cut their pollution trail down to nearly zero.

Bob’s STAX solution means cleaning offensive and harmful emissions for pennies on the dollar compared to traditional more expensive and less effective solutions.

STAX XGEN, A Case For American Ingenuity

There is so much more to say about startups like STAX Engineering and how a new generation of innovators works around seemingly insurmountable problems. Made in America used to mean a lot more than it does today. In an era of making this country great again, we’d be wiser to turn to those who do instead of those who talk. These new inventors and action thinkers show there are more solutions than obstacles in this universe.

And in case there is any doubt, this isn’t a STAX sponsored article. It’s something I feel we should all know as we type away on our computers.

Stay tuned for more as we look for more quick and nimble solutions from clean startups.

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Nicolas Zart

Nicolas was born and raised around classic cars of the 1920s, but it wasn't until he drove an AC Propulsion eBox and a Tesla Roadster that the light went on. Ever since he has produced green mobility content on various CleanTech outlets since 2007 and found his home on CleanTechnica. He grew up in an international environment and his communication passion led to cover electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, renewable energy, test drives, podcasts, shoot pictures, and film for various international outlets in print and online. Nicolas offers an in-depth look at the e-mobility world through interviews and the many contacts he has forged in those industries. His favorite taglines are: "There are more solutions than obstacles." and "Yesterday's Future Now"

Nicolas Zart has 572 posts and counting. See all posts by Nicolas Zart