Aug 18 2022
Data Center

What is Green Computing and How Does It Help Federal Agencies Cut Emissions?

Two net-zero goals must be achieved by 2035 and 2050.

The Biden administration has set ambitious goals of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035 for electricity generators and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 for the economy. Achieving them will require big changes in how government data centers are designed, operated and powered.

American data centers use approximately 2 percent of the total U.S. electricity supply and consume 10 to 50 times the energy per floor space of a typical commercial office building, according to the Department of Energy. In 2020, that figure was estimated at 73 billion kilowatt hours.

The good news is that demand for electricity is growing more slowly than the skyrocketing buildout of mega data centers. According to an analysis of international data center energy use by the Aspen Global Change

Institute, efficiencies are offsetting the installation of new hardware.

“Despite rapid growth in demand for information services over the past decade, global data center energy use likely rose by only 6 percent between 2010 and 2018,” the report states.

Experts say the future of computing efficiency depends on a holistic approach. “It really means understanding the impacts of cradle-to-grave energy consumption,” says Brian Anderson, director of DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

That’s more than just understanding end-product electricity demand; it’s also about grasping how much energy is expended in computer manufacturing and supply chains.

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What Is Green Computing?

IBM defines green computing as “the design, manufacture, use and disposal of computers, chips, other technology components and peripherals in a way that limits the harmful impact on the environment.”

These actions should help reduce carbon emissions as well as energy consumption by manufacturers, data centers and users, the IBM report states. It also notes that green computing includes “choosing sustainably sourced raw materials, reducing electronic waste and promoting sustainability through the use of renewable resources.”

Doing it the right way could make a big difference. The information and communications technology sectors are responsible for up to 4 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Association for Computing Machinery.

DIVE DEEPER: Get practical advice on how to make a data center greener.

On the electricity production side, DOE is funding research on carbon capture technologies:

  • Post-combustion systems separate carbon dioxide from the flue gas produced by conventional pulverized coal power plants.
  • Pre-combustion technologies separate carbon dioxide from hydrogen and other constituents in the fuel stream used by plants that burn synthesized goal gas.

“We can start to get carbon-free electricity from fossil fuels as well,” Anderson explains.

The Department of the Interior is also pushing to reclaim abandoned mine lands as renewable energy and IT hubs. The Mineral Gap Data Center in southwestern Virginia’s Wise County is an early example. The 65,000-square-foot facility will be partially powered by on-site solar arrays.

The private sector has been quick to see the value in repurposing decommissioned coal plant properties for wind and solar energy generation for a simple reason: They’re already connected to the power grid.

How Can Federal Agencies Leverage Green Computing?

A datacenter draws power for much more than running servers. According to Aspen Global, 43 percent of the electricity goes to cooling and power provision systems. Another 14 percent is used by networking and storage devices, leaving the remaining 43 percent for servers.

With servers and AC gobbling up the lion’s share, that’s a prime target for energy savings, says Ian Hoffman, policy and technical analyst with the Center for Expertise for Energy Efficiency in Data Centers at DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

LEARN MORE: Virtualization helps federal agencies cut back on physical data centers.

“Our feeling is that one ought to try and maximize efficiency and optimize your kilowatt hours before renewable energy,” Hoffman says.

Congress has instructed agencies to consolidate their datacenter fleets and move to the cloud wherever possible. While that moves data to yet another rack of servers somewhere else, the hyperscale facilities run by big private players like Google, Amazon and Microsoft are “vastly more efficient than federal data centers.”

In most cases, the private data center operators are also more aggressive about green energy. Amazon wants 100 percent renewables by 2025, 10 years sooner than the government.


How Can Servers Be Redesigned to Run Cooler?

Another huge efficiency can be achieved by moving to virtualization, says Hoffman. “You can maximize the IT resources you are deploying.”

Rather than leaving servers with less to do, the goal is to run them high and hot. “You fill in the capacity gaps,” he says.

Servers are at their most energy-efficient when running at maximum load. However, it’s taken a while to get past the cultural resistance to running equipment hot, Hoffman explains. Running hot means that data centers experience higher ambient temperatures.

DISCOVER: How virtualization is helping agencies cut back on physical data centers.

Most federal data centers have air chillers that require myriad pumps and fans to cool things down, but the newest facilities have liquid cooling pumped to the back of the server racks, which is more efficient.

The next big step will be delivering cooling directly to the processors inside the machines, Hoffman says, or even immersion baths for the entire works. Chip makers are already starting to design processors with internal cold plates, and the energy savings ranges from 25 to 50 percent, he adds.

Can Agencies Hit White House Energy Targets?

President Biden has set the bar high for moving the economy and energy producers to a net-zero carbon footing. “We see a lot of movement toward meeting those goals, but the jury is out on whether all federal agencies are going to be able to reach them,” says Hoffman.

EXPLORE: How agencies are working to create greener data centers.

The private sector is helping to make it possible. The cost of generating solar power is dropping fast. In 2017, the industry hit the federal target of 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for utility-scale photovoltaic solar power three years ahead of schedule, dropping from about 28 cents. Wind electricity is even cheaper at 1 or 2 cents per kilowatt hour.

Government tax credits help, and private industry is showing big interest, as are investors. “The targets are reachable if certain things line up,” says Anderson. “It needs to happen soon.”

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