Sustainable Resilience: Balancing Reliability and Uninterrupted Operations in the ESG Era

Written By

Brian Jabeck
VP of data centres

at

Enchanted Rock

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, the demand for data storage and processing continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Data centers have become a critical component of modern infrastructure, providing the backbone for countless digital services and applications including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and cryptocurrency. However, this rapid growth has also led to increased scrutiny of the environmental impact of data center operations.

Data centers are facing more pressure than ever to improve their sustainability while ensuring service continuity for their customers. Initiatives to reduce environmental impact included adoption of sustainable practices and sourcing for construction, materials, products, and power use. However, this has become increasingly challenging in the face of increased grid disruptions due to an aging grid, extreme weather events, and attacks on utility operations. For data centers torn between sustainability and reliability, an evolution of backup power strategies is needed, moving beyond the traditional approach of relying on diesel generators.

The Growing Importance of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria

In recent years, the importance of ESG criteria has grown exponentially for companies and investors alike. Data centers, which consume vast amounts of energy and produce considerable greenhouse gas emissions, have not been immune to this scrutiny. As a result, it has become increasingly important for the data center industry to showcase its ability to minimize its impact on the climate and local communities where the data centers are housed. For example, by 2030, Microsoft has adopted a goal of becoming carbon negative, Google has pledged to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy, and Meta is in pursuit of net zero value chain emissions. For many customers and investors, a data center’s sustainability metrics can be the deciding factor between choosing one facility over competitors.

Renewable Energy Sources: A Step in the Right Direction

Many data centers have turned to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, as a means of reducing their carbon footprint. While these solutions are undoubtedly beneficial, they are not without their limitations. Renewable energy sources can be intermittent and unpredictable, making them less suitable for mission-critical backup power systems, especially where reliability is paramount. As energy storage technologies continue to develop, renewables have a clear role to play in the sustainable data center of the future. However, there is no time to wait for this technology to mature, and more immediate steps must be taken in the meantime to transition off diesel.

Natural Gas Microgrids: A Sustainable and Reliable Alternative

Natural gas microgrids offer a compelling alternative to traditional diesel generators, providing environmental benefits without sacrificing reliability. By utilizing natural gas as a primary fuel source for backup power generation, data centers can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower local air pollution, and improve their overall ESG performance.

Natural gas generators have shown the ability to produce significantly lower carbon emissions than their diesel counterparts. In some cases, they have shown the ability to produce local emissions 80%-96% lower than EPA Tier 4 diesel standards. Additionally, natural gas combustion produces negligible amounts of sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter, both of which contribute to air pollution and are associated with adverse health effects. In fact, in 2022, a natural gas-powered reciprocating engine secured the California Air Resources Board Distributed Generation (CARB DG) certification, despite having some of the strictest emission requirements in the world.

Moreover, natural gas microgrids can be designed to operate in tandem with renewable energy sources, further enhancing their sustainability profile. Natural gas generators can be saved for when they are most needed, during times of peak demand, while wind and solar systems can be employed during periods when they can manage the required load on their own. This not only applies to the facilities themselves but the overall grid and local communities as well. Because these natural gas microgrids can act as a potential asset for the grid when it is strained, it allows utilities and municipalities the flexibility to further invest in renewable resources, knowing they have a reliable, low carbon backup asset if needed.

The Path Forward: Embracing Natural Gas Microgrids for Sustainable Data Center Operations

Natural gas microgrids offer an attractive solution for data centers looking to improve their sustainability while maintaining reliable backup power systems. By replacing traditional diesel generators with natural gas microgrids, data centers can significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, lower local air pollution, and enhance their overall ESG performance. As the world continues to prioritize sustainability and environmental stewardship, it is essential for the data center industry to embrace the best solutions available, without waiting for a perfect solution to emerge. As different technologies and opportunities prove themselves viable, those who break free from the status quo have the potential to capitalize on their willingness to adapt.

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