Gary:- My name is Gary cook. I work for Greenpeace based out of San Francisco and I lead our Rethink-IT campaign which is focused on getting the IT sector, particularly data center companies, to commit to powering their digital infrastructure with renewable energy.
Dan:- How long have you been working on this?
Gary:- The data center part goes back to 2010
Dan:- How have you seen things change and develop over that time?
Gary:- When we started, the corporate sustainability conversation was all about efficiency, and there was belief that renewables were not ready for prime time. There was a real block in terms of what companies could do to take more control of where their electricity was coming from. Whereas more recently, starting with Facebook and then Google followed by other bigger consumer facing companies taking action to make large contracts for wind or deploying solar near their data centres, like Apple, it started to remove some of the blockage that many other companies had in terms of what is possible and makes economic sense. Since then we have seen it progress from not just the consumer facing brands but bigger colocation operators and cloud companies and we see more demand from customers to see better performance overall.
Dan:-This is more and more being driven by the consumer. So how will the industry move from power purchase agreements and renewable energy credits and offsetting to 100% renewable from a consumption perspective?
Gary:-We see Google and a number of other bigger brands who started this process already talking about how they will get to be 24×7 renewable supplied. They recognise that they are still relying on fossil fuels for a significant part of the day, when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing. They may be 200% renewable part of the day in terms of what they have been able to put on the grid, where they have a data centres, but the rest of the time they are still relying on what was there in the first place. So we see more companies interested in how they can incorporate energy storage and how they can get involved in advocacy to accelerate the phase out of coal plants or to demand more renewables instead of an investment in gas. The problem is that a lot of the growth has still been geared to where there are already the centers of gravity. Places like Virginia, where you have very low levels of renewables and utilities they are not interested in a rapid transition. So companies need to get much more engaged in advocacy. They need to start voting with their feet more in terms of making sure that their growth is attached to the energy sources they need. Iowa is a good example where some of the bigger consumer facing and cloud brands are based, they have really started to drive a shift from that utility and it created competition with a neighbouring state. So when Facebook went to Iowa instead of Nebraska, Nebraska realised they needed to change their laws to make renewables easier, in order not to lose the next company. Data centre operators have a lot of levers that can be used to drive changes in the grid from the utility, which would really help them achieve that vision of being 24×7 renewable in much faster timescales than they are currently on.
Dan:- That is interesting because ultimately it is a grid issue. It is about the makeup of the grid. Do you have a separate unit within Greenpeace working with the grid to get them to transition to renewables faster? Is that something that you are actively working on?
Gary:- Absolutely. In all the countries of the world that we work in, the electricity grid is often a big source of pollution depending on the location. If we look at how we get to a transition to renewables we need to have the grid delivering renewables at scale, in order to allow us to electrify the transportation sector and to remove our reliance on oil. That is definitely something we work on. It is not just about data centres, that is just one piece of our campaign.
Dan:- It looks like the Grid has become more intelligent over the last few years and they are able to bring on different types of power subject to availability and demand. Is that something that you are seeing?
Gary:- We certainly see the grid being managed in very different ways and a lot of that has been driven by policy. The bigger driver has been, prior to some of the more recent corporate procurement of renewables, renewable energy standards. What happened in California got the ball rolling and there are now 26 states in the US that have renewable portfolio standards; and some of these have started to cap out, so now you see second and third generation standards being set. For example California is now setting a 100% target and New York has an 80% target. This is now driving the next round of investment, so I think policy is critical for us in order to have the overall grid to be green.
Dan:- Do you think energy storage is going to develop fast enough to stabilise renewable energy sources on some of these grids? What are you seeing from an energy storage perspective being used at peak demand?
Gary:- You already see this in many markets in the US and elsewhere, where solar and storage are cheaper in terms of a levelized cost of energy than gas. Particularly for peaking plants, you already see that renewables and storage will be cheaper than gas. Gas will be the more expensive and actually will be at an economic disadvantage without even considering climate change, the impacts of climate change and the associated costs. So I think you will see a couple of iterations of the type of stacking being used to do grid storage. Right now it is largely traditional technologies like pump storage, or the new one is lithium-ion batteries. We should use this technology wherever it makes sense to meet current demand or capacity needs in order to avoid investing in gas. To do that right now we need to use lithium-ion. So let us put that in place and not build the infrastructure for pipelines or gas plants, as that is going to be around for a number of years and it is going to really point the rudder in the wrong direction. Wherever we can avoid new investments in fossil fuels we should. That is why it is critical as we are shutting down coal to make sure we are doing whatever we need to do in order to put the renewables in place with the energy storage we need to back it up.
Dan:- So if we look at the data center industry, it has advanced quite significantly from a ‘Compute’ perspective, but it is still reliant on UPS for six minutes, diesel generators for fifteen minutes and three days’ worth of diesel fuel in the car park. There are noise abatement and environmental issues associated with this form of back up and they cannot operate as a short term supply for the grid with this form of backup power. Understandably, a lot of this is driven by customer SLA’s. Do you see a time when data centers and other energy intensive industries will be more integrated into the grid from a load balancing perspective using energy storage?
Gary:- Totally. We see that starting to happen in California where the data center is viewed as a prosumer or grid resource, which can help by managing load or providing onsite backup power, and the ability for batteries to do peak shaving, that is, minimise load during peak as needed for the grid. Though not about renewables, another example where you can see the partnership evolving is Microsoft in their Wyoming data center where they had natural gas generation in lieu of the utility building a whole new gas plant. So if the grid actually needs power to meet Microsoft’s demand or meet the grid demand, they could dispatch their generator. That is not really the path forward but it is an example of the type of partnership you can see developing between large data center operators and the utility, thus helping them keep everything in sync.
Dan:- I understand that stabilisation of the grid can change as renewables get added to it and it can become less reliable because of the peak load issues and the pricing issues. Are fuel-cells and that type of technology, initially powered by gas, transitioning to hydrogen fuel as the supply becomes viable as an option. In other words can fuel cell power generation help underpin the development of the hydrogen supply infrastructure to replace the gas supply over a period of time? What are your thoughts on the development of a hydrogen powered fuel cell generation?
Gary:- Hydrogen has potential as a storage mechanism and we are getting closer on a cost competitive basis for it to make sense to convert excess renewable into hydrogen and use it seasonally or at other times of the day. My concern with this is that gas-focused utilities are using hydrogen as a justification to build out gas infrastructure, saying they will use gas for now and then convert this to hydrogen, but generally it does not work that way. Because of the chemistry and molecular density of hydrogen versus methane it does not make it feasible to use the same infrastructure. You cannot just plug hydrogen into it. We need to be very careful about not investing more in fossil fuel infrastructure. Using fuel cells that are currently using methane might be a way to move forward, but if you are doing that on a scale basis and are then going to build a whole delivery network to do that, then that is where I question whether it is a good investment.
Dan:- It is exciting to see the development of fuel-cell technology from both a technology and pricing perspective, and how this is making it more viable to be used as onsite power generation for digital infrastructure assets at the edge of the network or on a large scale.
Gary:- We need to focus on ensuring that in the long term we are making investments in the right direction. Looking at fuel-cells using bio-gas feedstock where you are working in partnership with farmers using the right sort of crops from agriculture and cattle has been talked about for 10 or 15 years. We are now seeing some companies who have got the economics right. They have got the price of the digesters down and are not that far away from using that in a fuel cell type application, or otherwise using it for displacing grid power.
Dan:- Have you seen any work happening around reducing the SLA’s between the Hyperscale and the colocation companies? If the SLA’s could be changed without reducing their reliability e.g. by increasing operating temperature. If this was to happen at scale, this could have a material impact. Have you seen anything happening along these lines?
Gary:- I think you had a wave of that a few years ago, but I have not seen it recently in the hyper scale and colos. I have not heard of anyone recently making that a big priority.
Dan:- What are your thoughts on over-provisioning by data centers at a grid level? Do you think that committed power at grid level which is not being used has an impact?
Gary:- Well, a lot of times utilities will use that committed load to justify a new generation capacity or new transmission. That is why in the ‘Clicking Clean report’ we are not measuring internet companies on consumption data, though companies should be reporting that, we are instead measuring capacity. We are looking at how the utility is going to see new capacity in terms of the amount of power that is going to be drawn – and whether this amount has been met with an equivalent amount of renewable supply. If not, any new capacity is driving whatever the mix is on the grid.
Dan:- So when you look at your figures and what has to be done over the next 12 years, is that based on committed load or on consumed load? Is it a better story?
Gary:- Which figures are you referring to?
Dan:- When you look at the journey that we have to take as an industry to make sure we fit in within the 1.5 degrees temperature increase, are those numbers based on consumed power?
Gary:- Yes, it is based on consumed power.
Dan:- So if you added committed power that would be significantly more than we need to do.
Gary:-That is right. Yes.
Dan:- So we have a huge task ahead of us over the next 10 years. It is not an easy journey that we are on. So how do you see things turning out?
Gary:- Well, I am in the optimism business. We have seen quite a bit of change in the last nine years, we have gone way beyond the proof concept, and we have seen recognition of responsibility. Now companies need to focus on execution and follow through. We need to focus on not just offsetting, but looking at how do we get the dirty energy off the grid where data centers are growing. I believe if the sector focuses on that they can accomplish anything. If you look at the growth we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years, you would not have guessed we would be where we are now. Moving forward very quickly, if we focus on how to solve this part of the equation I am confident the sector can do it and can actually get support from governments to help them get there to do it. However, right now I think we have seen too much focus on short term cause and not the long term value being created by companies, who therefore focus on tax incentives and tax abatement and all those other things which help with economics. Ultimately, if you look at what is happening with climate change and the concern you see growing every single day from students up and down the line, if you want to make an investment that has long term value you make sure you are solving this equation. Otherwise you could have stranded assets and customers will start going to someone else who can actually solve this for them. Consumers are going to get more demanding and your customers are going to get more demanding. This is not just about what is going on today and that cost, you are getting married to a region when you invest in a data center and where is that region going to be in 10 or 15 years; and is that going to be where your customers want you to be in that time period? If it is not, you should think about how you can change that or what region can actually help you do that.
Dan:- I agree when you look at companies like Ecosia, a search engine based in Germany, which donates 80% or more of its profits to non-profit organizations focusing on reforestation. It considers itself a social business and is CO2-negative. I do not think consumers are aware of how much impact there is placing something on social media from a CO2 perspective.
Gary:- We are certainly trying to do our job in educating consumers and we may need to do quite a bit more. We have been seeing the IT sector as having really critical decisions to make. We don’t try to demonize the sector—they are building important infrastructure–but ultimately consumers are concerned. IT companies are no longer invisible to governments or to consumers in terms of the amount of demand your driving in terms energy consumption. So the tipping point can come quite quickly in terms of customer concern with a backlash against over consumption or the pollution attributed to online services. At that point your assets become much less valuable than you thought they were.
Dan:- I think that the data center industry could follow the automobile industry in terms of reporting on embedded carbon and operational carbon. I would imagine that other industries will have to have to start reporting in the same way. We have got an opportunity as a sector to take a lead on this prior to being legislated against. Have you seen any discussions around embedded Carbon or Operational Carbon that would help the industry move in that direction?
Gary:- We are certainly seeing a lot in the EU level. We are also starting to see some of this in US states like California and New York.
Dan:- Something like CUE (Carbon Utilisation Effectiveness)?
Gary:- Yes that is one metric, but no one currently reports on it. It would be a good step forward having governments require CUE or something which reports the operational carbon. We are seeing a lot happening on Embedded Carbon in Brussels right now, trying to get a better handle on it and setting some requirements initially on the device side rather than the cloud side, but that can quickly change.