With the introduction of new technologies, data center modernization has become a critical success factor for market and competitive success. With this move to modernize, IT leaders are in a unique position to drive sustainable practices forward by adding clear sustainability goals to their modernization frameworks.

IDC predicts that the world’s data will grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025 (jumping from 33 zettabytes in 2017). What’s more, the amount of energy used by data centers doubles every four years, so the carbon footprint of this industry is growing at an exponential rate. IT leaders need a mindset shift to modernize and drive sustainability. Those in charge of driving modernization plans must think of their data centers as an extension of the electrical grid, investing in renewable energy to prioritize decarbonization goals, and revamping their current operations to produce and consume their own power as prosumers.

Modernizing tomorrow’s data center – on the grid

As data center managers look to modernize with sustainable goals in mind, they’ll need to evaluate the power behind their data centers and consider the role they can play in reducing carbon emissions by becoming prosumers themselves.

The first step in doing this is investing in grid edge solutions, such as automation tools or battery energy storage systems. With these new assets, data centers will have useful solutions to provide a robust power supply. Integrating this technology into existing backup systems can influence how centers are working with utilities daily. This ultimately can help build a network in which data centers and utilities work together to save energy.

The idea of integrating data centers as part of the electrical grid is not a new concept. In March 2020, data center operators reportedly lobbied European Union officials, hoping to make their data centers part of the EU’s electrical grid. Those involved created an extensive plan to meet the demands of the Union’s aggressive green goals, outlining how data center operators could help balance energy supply and demand on the electrical grid. The eventual public outcome so far has been the European operators' Climate Neutral Data Center Pact

When crafting modernization plans, operators should take a page out of these lobbyists’ book. In order to make data centers part of the grid, these groups suggested that operators replace diesel generators with batteries. From there, the batteries would be capped with copious grid energy when available and then the energy could be sold back once the grid was running low.

Those operators suggested leveraging an AI-based system to help with load-balancing the grid in a flexible manner. However, using this technology cannot be done without a significant investment. This is why the plan also suggests that the government and operators should work together on developing energy tax incentives or credits for green investments. This could provide operators with the financial relief to modernize their data centers.

The integral role of decarbonization goals

As business leaders create modernization frameworks, decarbonization goals and commitments need to be included. Decarbonization starts with corporate decision-making, specifically when evaluating the supply chain. Business leaders should ensure the energy their data centers use comes from a clean source. Once this is determined, they can set realistic decarbonization goals and select which grid edge solutions and renewable energy sources they need. After vetting the supply chain, leaders can commit to a timeline to reduce carbon emissions.

The industry is demanding decarbonization commitments. In fact, the IEA has found that hyper scale data center operations are leaders in corporate renewables procurement, primarily through power purchase agreements (PPAs). The top four corporate off-takers of renewables in 2019 were all enterprise companies, led by Google.

PPAs help organizations that need more power than what they are currently producing on-site. By signing a PPA, a company buys an agreed-upon number of megawatts from an outside provider to source more power. BloombergNEF reported that 23.7 GW worth of PPA contracts were signed in 2020, which is 18 percent above the 2019 total. This highlights the growing interest from tech companies in committing to decarbonization goals and how PPAs can help them meet their targets.

Modernizing data centers is no longer about bettering the technology. It must include sustainability goals. To power the data center of the future, we have to change the way we view them – as part of the grid. By acting as an energy prosumer and prioritizing decarbonization efforts, tomorrow’s modern data center can help the world reach carbon-zero.