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Bernard Geoghegan (UK) - Can We Truly Get 100% Renewable Energy?

I see so much talk about renewable energy these days, it's hard for people to see through the ‘green wash'. At the moment there are quite a few companies claiming they use 100% renewable energy for their data centers but is this just more talk? Can we really achieve this in Europe? Do we need to branch out and find new, innovative ways to source completely renewable energy?

Encouraging international cooperation

A study released last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) put forward an argument for a new electricity system for Europe and North Africa that could achieve complete independence from fossil fuels and run on 100% renewable power by 2050. This would be achieved through a "pan-continental supersmart grid powered by solar farms in North Africa, hydro electric plants in Scandinavia and the European Alps, onshore and offshore wind farms in the Baltic and North Sea, marine energy, and biomass power facilities." On top of this, The European Union is creating an ‘energy vision for Europe for the next four decades', a roadmap to outline the options for a future, greener European energy supply. This plan will be considered by key decision-makers but not until the end of this year.

Although it's fantastic to see governments in the EU taking more initiative to encourage greener IT, this shows the complexity of providing Europe with 100% renewable energy. It's my thinking that we need to look at the needs we have now, not consider things at the end of the year or forecast this to come into fruition by 2050. The need for greener energy supplies is more urgent than that, particularly with the rising costs of more traditional fuels, which is a key driver for behavioural change in carbon reduction. We need to recognise that increased data center efficiency leads to an overall reduction in power usage.

Industry measurements

Many companies, including ours, have been looking at ways of improving energy efficiency in data centres in an attempt to reach the goal of 100% renewable energy. As mentioned in my previous blog post, implementing more innovative designs such as modular builds leads to lower Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) which is a critical starting point for running more environmentally friendly data centers. Unfortunately, PUE is not a mandatory industry standard at the moment for measuring power efficiencies, although it is widely recognised. While the measurement is often a source of debate in the industry, it still remains the most effective means of evaluating energy efficiency. What the industry needs is a metric which measures and rewards efficiency through rolling annual reductions. For example, a carbon tax could be payable relative to the average PUE achieved.

The UK Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme, which was introduced in 2010 with its allowance sales coming into effect in 2012, aims to encourage carbon reduction in UK businesses. However, the CRC doesn't take into account all factors in assessing UK businesses' carbon footprints. For instance, it places disproportionate focus on rewarding participants who meet pre-defined, narrow "Early Action" metrics. One of two metrics relates to the number of manually read meters replaced with Automated Meter Reading (AMR) meters. The CRC covers participants who are large energy users and in reality, have minimal manually read meters, so for example, if an organisation which has two manually read meters and replaces these with AMR ones, they would gain 50% of the total "Early Action" metric score which would not be a true measure of carbon savings and does not take into account all environmental factors like heat and water reuse, unlike using PUE.

Looking beyond

By all accounts, great strides have been made in Europe to drive energy use down. But still we need to think about the increasing price of power. So, what's on offer to further this green effort?

As a result of our recent work with Verne Global, a data centre developer, our attention has been drawn to Iceland. In Iceland, truly 100% renewable energy can be achieved from dual sources - geothermal and hydroelectric. Verne Global's data center campus in Iceland is one that is strategically located so that customers can benefit from the region's unique 100% dual sourced renewable energy. A modular data centre design has been used here to further optimise Iceland's temperate climate to ensure that free air cooling is available 365 days a year. Operating this data centre is carbon free, zero emissions and therefore extremely environmentally friendly. If you're interested in PUE, this can push PUE even further than our design PUE of 1.21, but we'll wait until we have running metrics in Iceland before we talk about that.

A reliable dual sourced 100% renewably powered data center cannot be achieved in the rest of Europe at the moment and isn't forecast to until at least 2050. This data centre campus in Iceland is a great way to achieve green aspirations today, not in 10 to 20 years' time.

By Bernard Geoghegan, EVP at Colt Technology Services

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