With our increasing appetite for data and its subsequent demand for power, Jonas Caino suggests we look for alternative forms of energy to ensure we keep the lights on and the party going.

In the late 1500s, Britain was in the grip of a huge energy crisis. The main source of energy to keep the country going was wood, which was fast running out and consequently becoming prohibitively expensive. This crisis opened the door to an alternative form of energy – coal. Coal gave the world freedom from photosynthesis and ushered in the first industrial revolution of the late 1700s in the form of improvements to the steam engine. Is history beginning to repeat itself?

In a recent article, I wrote about cryptocurrency mining and its influence on data centre design thought and methodology. Cryptocurrency mining is really hitting the headlines right now over one thing: it’s ferocious demand for power. There are figures in the media currently being bandied around, such as the power required to run current global cryptocurrency (particularly Bitcoin) operations exceeding that of Ireland’s total power capacity or, if the miner’s insatiable demand for power grows at the current rate, by 2020 (yes, a couple of years) it will consume the world’s entire power.

I’m not sure how true the last statement is, particularly as miner-less, blockchain-based alternative coins such as NANO (formally RaiBlock) are growing in popularity, or coins like Byteball that are not based on blockchain at all but use alternative technologies called Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) such as Tangle or Hashgraph. So, the global catastrophe of all the lights going out and the party stopping due to cryptocurrency mining seems unlikely.

This does, however, raise important questions: How do we power the data centres of the future? What innovations do we have at our disposal that we should be thinking about now? Is it enough to simply think about energy efficiency within the data centre as opposed to the source of the power in the first place?

Cheap, renewable and reliable power sources should be the initial consideration before looking at power efficiency and resilience methodologies.

One thing that is constant is the world’s appetite for the creation, distribution and storage of data. We all know this reality is not going away any time soon. This seemingly infinite data growth phenomenon will undoubtedly create technological and economic ‘bubbles’ in areas such as bandwidth and power. If one of these bubbles bursts, it could severely impact the whole data ecosystem meaning the internet and freemium online services such as Facebook, YouTube or LinkedIn may no longer be free for the basic user.

New ideas

Data centre designers, managers and operators are now (or should be) looking at new ways to power their data centres. The assumption that when building a data centre to just look for the nearest substation that is big enough and plug in is fast fading. Alternative and innovative power sources are taking up a lot of mind space for those looking to build data centres, be it on greenfield or brownfield sites.

Examples of new ideas are springing up everywhere. In Ghana, Africa’s first totally off the grid data centre is being built solely relying on solar panels with high photovoltaic (PV) properties stored in lithium-ion batteries for constant discharge with diesel generators serving only as back up. In the United States, there exists a zero-carbon data centre powered by fuel cells that are in turn fueled by biogas drawn from a wastewater treatment plant.

In Scotland, a data centre is being built that draws its power from the huge biomass plant next door. What these examples show is that data centres are becoming all about location, location, location, with the potential power source being one of the main factors when selecting a site. Cheap, renewable and reliable power sources should be the initial consideration before looking at power efficiency and resilience methodologies.

Whether it is solar, wind, biomass, gas generation, geothermal, combined heat and power (CHP), hydro-electric, clever use of onsite continuous generators or a combination thereof, we may all have no choice at some point in the future but to do our bit to keep the lights on and the party going.


This post originated at Data Centre Management magazine, from the same publisher as The Stack. Click here to find out more about the UK’s most important industry publication for the data centre space.