Data centers play a critical role in the global economy, providing the essential foundation for digital infrastructure and fostering cutting-edge advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence. As a result, the demand for data center usage has surged, leading to a substantial increase in electricity consumption to power these facilities. This escalating demand for energy raises concerns about carbon emissions and the environmental impact. Data center leaders can be central players in worldwide sustainability efforts, actively shaping a more environmentally responsible future.

24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) has emerged as a response to the urgent need for the elimination of carbon emissions and the adoption of cleaner energy sources. 24/7 CFE must be time-matched with consumption on an hour-by-hour basis and produced on the same grids where consumption occurs. 24/7 CFE is designed to be source-inclusive and includes all carbon-free sources including hydro and nuclear, in addition to wind and solar.

Traditional methods of carbon accounting such as Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) were a valuable first step in addressing decarbonization, but as described in a recent article, fall short in certain aspects. Because these credits are offset on an annual basis, a facility would still utilize fossil-based energy during times of the day when renewable energy is unavailable. 24/7 CFE addresses these shortcomings by matching energy consumption to carbon-free energy for every hour of the day. The potential is clear: 24/7 CFE can greatly reduce the carbon footprint of both new and existing data centers, and accelerate the phase-out of the inefficient fossil fuel plants that supply energy during peak usage.

Google, Microsoft, Iron Mountain, and many other businesses dependent on data centers have set targets for 24/7 CFE. For example, Google has pledged to go 24/7 Carbon-Free by 2030.

Setting goals and targets

When setting clean energy targets, a business must determine the right balance between cost and decarbonization. Aligning on a clear goal will help drive decision-making during implementation.

It’s crucial to understand grid mix (the specific mix of energy sources for energy from your current supplier) as the portion of carbon-free energy forms the baseline for a sustainability goal. From there, a business can determine how different degrees of CFE will impact their cost, and whether to set an absolute goal (such as 99 percent CFE) or a measurement of an incremental improvement (such as a 20 percent increase in CFE).

When choosing which data centers to deploy CFE, look for those that are capable of monitoring and measuring power loads as they relate to their source of energy, including cooling units and IT load. Finally, ensure stakeholder buy-in from the C-suite to procurement, finance, and operations when setting your CFE timeline.

A critical step to implementing 24/7 CFE is to understand current and future energy needs. This means examining hourly consumption while anticipating future increases or decreases, and taking into account the facility’s geographic footprint. Additionally, it is important to review past decarbonization actions, such as the use of RECs, energy retailer supply, and onsite energy.

Consider the start date for your CFE initiative by understanding when current supply contracts expire, and consider the expiration dates of RECs and the ability to transition to Time-based Energy Attribute Certificates (T-EACs). Work with suppliers or a CFE Manager to define a 24/7 CFE contract and evaluate the feasibility of onsite renewable energy and battery storage.

Approaches to 24/7 CFE

Options for successfully sourcing 24/7 CFE include:

  1. Deploying onsite generation such as rooftop solar. This option does not work for most data centers, as it would require a large amount of roof or land space to produce enough solar energy for their needs.
  2. Contracting with wind and solar farms via Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). This can be cost-effective but requires specialized sourcing staff and, because renewable energy such as wind and solar are intermittent (the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine!), often entails over-procuring and/or sourcing multiple energy types.
  3. Contract with a CFE Manager for carbon-free energy supply. This is the optimal approach for many companies, as these providers specialize in assembling portfolios, thereby managing the procurement and matching process.

Ensuring success

When selecting a 24/7 CFE energy supplier, a facility manager should ask these questions:

  1. Have they successfully executed similar projects before?
  2. What is their track record in achieving 24/7 goals? Request references.
  3. Can they provide various options and help set goals with a range of costs?
  4. Do they serve your geographic region and understand its market dynamics?
  5. Do they use real-time data to time-match consumption and supply?
  6. What tracking and reporting functions do they offer?