Are holistic solutions key to overcoming future sustainability challenges?

Are holistic solutions key to overcoming future sustainability challenges?

It’s inevitable that data centres are entering a new era, but their new definition must procure synergy with other industries to function sustainably. Chad McCarthy, Chief Technology Officer & Co-founder of nLighten, tells us more.

Chad McCarthy, Chief Technology Officer & Co-founder of nLighten

Responsible data centre owners, operators and users are fully aware of the impact their actions can have on energy, water, waste and emissions within the communities where their data centres operate.

Sustainability and carbon free energy are therefore as much on their minds as those of the legislators when considering expansion of data centres into new locations to further support our digital economy. Let’s start with the data centres themselves, and how they affect the local infrastructure.

Sustainable redevelopment

With rising costs of build and the increased focus of regulators on sustainable building developments, data centre operators expanding in both emerging markets and established locations need to take stock. The emissions of new build data centres are sometimes the only choice – but there are growing opportunities for repurposing existing data centres, which may no longer be anywhere near fully utilised. These provide a convenient local option for enterprises migrating from on-premise data centres to colocation and/or into the cloud – addressing network connectivity and emerging energy efficiency legislation.  

While new energy concepts and technical infrastructure are necessary, the opportunity is to reuse the embodied carbon expended during construction of vacated legacy premises. Levering existing operating permits and fibre connectivity, these sites provide a convenient and local solution for network deployments and local workloads.

This approach plays particularly well for well-funded Edge colocation providers, where network proximity to users is key to supporting low latency or high volume applications, for example, for enterprise businesses, industry, CDNs, entertainment and regional cloud providers. At the same time, it helps the data centre sector achieve timely and sustainable facilities to support accelerating capacity demands.

Sector coupling

Looking to the future, the implementation of innovative sustainable solutions in collaboration with the local community is a priority. nLighten terms this ‘sector coupling’, which is not a new term in the energy sector but one which has excluded data centres until recently.

This is the practice of energy recovery and reuse between producers and users of energy to affect lower aggregate emissions and a higher overall efficiency. It is no longer the data centre in isolation: the new definition of data centre operations takes the community infrastructure into account and redefines the data centre as a lever to environmental improvement.

After all, in our digital economy we are now as dependent on data as we are on established industrial utilities such as power, water, heating or cooling. The energy transition and increasing trend toward weather dependent generation makes the energy sector dependent on energy storage and recovery. Yes, our utilities are all in a state of change to protect the environment and data centres are a part of this as a significant energy user.

Heat exchange and reuse

Heat recovery and reuse as a by-product of data centre operations provides an emission free source of heat, which often offsets carbon rich energy sources for heating such as oil or natural gas. Northern Europe, for example, has significant potential for heat reuse with the growing demand for regional Edge data centres. Increasingly, these are being strategically located close to end-users and therefore ideally positioned to export excess heat.

Renewable power sources therefore offer the potential to substantially reduce emissions while supporting power and heat sharing with local utilities. Having more data centres closer to urban areas will significantly facilitate local recovery and export of heat energy to the community.

The latest generation of cooling systems have the ability to seamlessly upgrade heat exported from data centres and create a carbon-free heat source to assist district heating systems. New cooling solutions for higher power densities additionally assist heat recovery efficiency via their higher operating temperatures, while removing the need for evaporative cooling, conserving water usage in the local community.

In 2023, for example, the City of Eschborn and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in Germany signed an agreement with nLighten for heat exported from its Edge data centre at high temperatures. The recovered heat warms the public swimming pool complex and several city buildings, contributing positively to the local energy infrastructure.

Grid stabilisation

Renewable energy sourcing and on-site renewable generation including solar, wind, biogas and hydrogen solutions have become key factors in data centre design, but the utility sector has been busy with these for even longer. 

The energy transition requires an increasing amount of renewable generation which is often weather-dependent. This results in a variable grid capacity and regular mismatches between the supply and demand of grid power, particularly in event of weather forecasting errors. A constant data centre load profile is therefore increasingly incompatible with an increasingly renewable grid. 

The solution is the deployment of grid balancing systems. These can use energy storage systems and onsite generation to support the grid in times of over or under capacity, creating a varied load profile to assist renewable grid energy. The increasing scale of data centre power systems offers enormous potential to reduce grid dependence on fossil fuel power plants during periods of frequency deviation.

Using carbon neutral on-site generation and energy storage, nLighten’s is evolving its data centres such that they support utilities in their energy transition. This creates a synergy between the growth of data centres for the digital economy and emissions reduction in the utility sector.

In summary, data centre leaders are at the forefront of delivering holistic solutions to climate and energy challenges, helping themselves as well as their customers and the energy sector to achieve their sustainability goals. 

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