What is the environmental impact of paying by Visa? Participating in a Zoom conference call? Reading this CleanTechnica article?
The information we transmit and store through the seemingly invisible Internet is physically housed in data centers, or facilities companies use for their routers, switches, servers, and other systems vital to operation. Data centers can be massive — bigger than aircraft carriers — emit large amounts of heat and require huge amounts of energy. According to a recent study, data centers in the United States consumed almost 2% of the country’s total energy consumption. Usage is expected to grow.
While companies are working to lower their data centers’ environmental impacts, it’s often done in a piecemeal manner. Companies’ data centers are rarely completely green — running on renewable energy, incorporating efficiency measures and reusing the waste heat. Amazon provides an example. The cloud giant has committed to run 100% on renewable energy, but a recent report by Greenpeace found that the expansion of Amazon and other cloud computing giants in Virginia is fueling climate change with a new demand for dirty energy.
The approach could shift if governments and companies begin looking at data centers as resources instead of high-energy-demanding facilities. It’s a shift in thinking as some companies expect to get a boost as governments commit to rely on 100% clean energy in the coming decades and start phasing out natural gas.
California provides an example. Last September, then-Governor Jerry Brown set a target for 100% clean energy by 2045. Then, today, German-based Cloud&Heat, which was recently named one of the fastest growing European tech companies, announced it’s expanding to the Golden State. Built on OpenStack, the company’s technology transforms high energy-consuming servers into heat-producing assets to power cities and buildings.
“The energy awareness of California’s culture puts positive pressure on companies to take serious efforts in optimizing their energy efficiency,” Nicolas Röhrs, CEO of Cloud&Heat, told CleanTechnica when asked if the state’s renewable energy commitment was a draw. “California is the state where high technology paired with open minded attitude comes together.”
Cloud&Heat servers are currently providing heat to several residential areas in Germany, including the former European Central Bank. The technology eliminates the need for heat pumps, a total savings that reached $79,000 a year for the Bank. This energy redistribution is made possible by proprietary water cooling technology, which uses water to cool the servers before exporting it at a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which in turn can be used to address local needs.
“We use highly specialized and optimized liquid cooling heat exchangers to extract the heat right where it is produced on the chips and hot components of each server,” Röhrs said. “This allows not only very efficient cooling of critical semiconducter components but also the use of very low energy pumps that use a fraction of the energy compared to air cooling fans.”
Although companies have reused heat from data centers before, there is amazing growth potential for Cloud& Heat’s product in California. Not only is the state working to lower the environmental footprint of its growing tech sector, but it’s also looking to wean its buildings off natural gas. In 2016, energy use from California’s buildings was responsible for more than 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent publication by the nonprofit Building Decarbonization Coalition. About 42% of these emissions result primarily from space and water heating.
“There is no reality where we’re meeting our climate goals and still burning gas in our homes,” Panama Bartholomy, the Coalition’s director, told the San Francisco Examiner.
Data centers can shift this reality by acting as a readily available energy source for multiple buildings to use instead of natural gas. They could function similarly to how systems rely on sewer heat.
If scaled, data centers could help residents save on utility bills because electricity rates are more stable than gas. In 2012, the residential price for gas in California was $9.14 per thousand cubic feet according to the United States Energy Information Administration. By 2017, it had risen to $12.49. Southern California Gas Company projected the need for more than 45% higher revenue from ratepayers from 2018-2022 in documents submitted to the California Public Utilities commission.
Cloud&Heat’s decision to enter the California market now is a sign that the state’s progressive environmental policies is a draw for business. The company is positioning itself as a new solution to addressing climate change.
“Cloud&Heat is one of the more innovative companies in the open infrastructure community,” said Heidi Bretz, Director of Business Development of the OpenStack Foundation. “Their model for harvesting energy from data center heat load has proven useful in Europe, and it’s exciting to see their unique use case now arriving in the United States.”
Instead of asking what impact our data usage has on the environment, we should ask how the growing tech sector can benefit the planet. It’s a question CleanTechnica readers are used to answering. Hopefully, as more governments commit to increasing clean energy, data centers can provide a resource.