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Working towards the green data centre

Bonnie Gardiner | May 5, 2015
The standard data centre will one day run on renewable energy and green technologies. But how far do we have to go before this is a reality?

Predictable energy costs, mitigation of climate change regulations, and tax breaks all contribute to the case for investment in renewable generation, says Donoghue.

Larger operators have maintained that cost reduction has been a critical driver for investment in renewables, with Apple expecting to save hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs from its solar investments, ranging from lowered energy costs, significant government subsidies, and other ancillary benefits.

However, the price of grid and on-site renewables compared with fossil fuels remains an obstacle for many organisations in the short term.

"The main challenges are capital intensive - a lot of green initiatives get pushed back because they require an upfront investment," says Gedda.

"In the case of solar panels, it might be an investment of up to a few million dollars and does the owner of the property or data centre operator want to invest that amount of capital for a long-term return?"

In addition, many operators require support from industry or government that is lacking, while financial mechanisms such as renewable energy certificates (RECs) remain complex and open to criticism around their true environmental value, says Donoghue.

Flexibility and security
The flexibility of alternative power sources can allow for greater power security and back-up capabilities.

"With traditional infrastructure you've got electricity networks and substations, which only extend so far," says Gedda.

"Even when looking at the recent storms and power outages in New South Wales and Queensland - when the traditional electricity grid is still exposed it's not infallible.

"Many data centres might have had to resort to diesel-generated backups and battery stores, when that type of infrastructure can be supplemented by renewable energy as well."

Gedda suggests alternatives could be to run back-up power using sustainable bio-diesel, instead of traditional mineral diesel, while charging battery packs with renewable sources like wind or solar.

"Those sorts of things are certainly worth investigating if you have data centres in different locations, each with different requirements and risks."

On the flip side, the report finds the intermittent nature of renewables is a significant issue for an industry predicated on reliability.

"Unless very large investments are made, wind turbines and solar photovoltaics do not generally provide the power density required for data centres," says Donoghue.

"Even large expanses of solar panels, for example, may only provide a few hundred kilowatts -- insufficient for larger data centres that consume megawatts of power."

If it ain't broke...
Another challenge, according to Gedda, is those infrastructure managers or company heads that are reluctant to move or change their data centre without an immediate need to do so.

The refresh cycles of data centre equipment - or lack thereof - are also causing delays, as organisations tend to want to get the most value they can out of equipment rather than upgrading to new more sustainable methods.

 

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