Load-Sharing Data Centers Could Give Renewable Energy An Advantage Over Fossil Fuels

When it's sunny in California, shifting data processing from the east coast to where the energy is cheap could save large amounts of carbon emissions and change the economics of electricity production in favor of clean sources. Simone Hogan/Shutterstock.com

Data centers account for 1.8 percent of US electricity demand – more than a medium-sized state – and rising fast. However, one team of scientists have offered a solution that could turn this around, making all that number-crunching work for the planet, not against it. It could also save so much money that everyone without an investment in fossil fuels could share the benefits.

The battle between renewable energy and fossil fuels will decide the fate of our planet. In addition to being climate friendly and not producing lethal pollution, solar and wind now produce cheaper electricity in most parts of the world than coal or gas, as long as there is no need to include the price of storage.

Besides the ongoing search for cheaper batteries, the most commonly proposed solution is to improve the long-distance transmission of electricity. However, Professor Sangwon Suh of the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks its better to move demand to where electricity is cheap and clean than send the electricity to the demand. That's frequently not practical. For example, there is no point turning on streetlights on a sunny day, just because all that sunlight is creating lots of electricity.

However, Suh pointed out that information processing is a different matter. Already some data centers have been located in places like Iceland, so they can be powered by geothermal energy and hydropower. Yet, Suh is proposing something much more sophisticated.

He suggests data processing be shifted around the world to take advantage of wherever there happens to be an abundance of cheap, clean power at the time. "Transporting data and information is very cheap because we can use fiber optics to transmit the data literally at the speed of light,” Suh said in a statement.

Put like that, the idea seems so obvious it's surprising it isn't happening already. Instead, the opposite is the case, at least in the United States where the greatest concentration of data centers is in Northern Virginia, which has one of the most coal-dominated grids in the country, which Suh calls “the dirtiest electricity we can imagine.”

In Joule, Suh calculates that “moving bits, not watts” when it is sunny in California could prevent the emissions of almost a quarter of a million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, even without expanding California data centers. Moreover, each tonne of carbon dioxide avoided would also save more than $200 in electricity costs. Taking advantage of hotspots of clean but intermittent energy, such as wind power on the great plains, could make the benefit larger still.

Even this undersells the potential impact. In places where solar or wind power is already abundant, electricity prices are falling at the sunniest or windiest times as supply exceeds demand. This is becoming the biggest threat to the further expansion of renewable energy in the places most suited to it.

Increasing demand at these times by adding data processing would make it economic to build a lot more solar and wind farms in these locations. These will still produce a lot of energy even away from peak times, potentially multiplying Suh's calculated benefit many times over.

"What surprised me was why we were not doing this before," Suh said.

The answer seems to be that owners of different data centers have been reluctant to cooperate, even when it is to their mutual benefit. If they can get over that, they could provide a major leg-up to renewable energy and put a dagger in coal's heart.

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