Data centers will shift toward grid-positive

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As the global climate crisis deepens, leading organizations are shifting corporate sustainability goals from avoiding negative impact toward creating positive change. At a minimum, companies are crafting strategies aligned with the goals of the Paris Accord and recognizing the urgent need to decarbonize global economies.

IDC predicts “by 2025, 90% of G2000 companies will mandate reusable materials in IT hardware supply chains, carbon neutrality targets for providers’ facilities, and lower energy use as prerequisites for doing business.”1

To date, many data center companies manage their energy consumption and corresponding carbon emissions through design innovations and energy efficiency measures. Several operators have gone a step further by committing to 100% renewable energy and carbon neutrality, with some aligning to the European Union’s (EU) Green Deal calling for complete carbon-neutrality in data centers by 2030.1 In 2021, the digital economy is expected to continue expanding and accelerating, placing data centers in a key position, with the responsibility to drive a positive environmental impact.

In 2021, we will see movement toward the first major “grid-and-sustainability”-positive data center projects.

There are a variety of potential ways that data centers can make an environmentally positive impact. From indirect opportunities to influence the development of hosting platforms that can accurately combine weather forecasts, patterns of usage and demand, and capabilities such as load shedding, to specific actions including leveraging large, on-site energy storage solutions providing flexible, instantaneous power sources, or even utilizing waste energy in the form of heat to displace local energy demand.

The move from neutrality to positive impact will require a technology-driven approach. It will also require building both global and local ecosystems of highly interested parties. Long term, the convergence of this trend and the emergence of next-generation applications requiring ultra-low roundtrip latencies will result in a change in data center locations. The next generation of data centers will be decentralized and integrated into communities, serving as resilient ecosystems for compute, connectivity, power and heat.

With an increased focus on sustainability comes a shift toward open data center infrastructure standards – from design and operation to power management to next-generation fuel cells and cooling. This trend will accelerate data center innovation and play a vital role toward grid positivity by reducing the considerable barriers that equipment providers face in developing platforms to serve mission-critical data center facilities.

A confluence of factors—including advancement in enabling technologies (in part through more open hardware platforms and better interoperability between vendors); increasing urgency in resolving climate change through the development of renewable energy sources and integration into wholesale power markets; the associated challenges of storage and new platforms requiring ever-lower, end-to-end latency; and the need to drive compute and network resources closer to the edge—will spawn a new generation of grid-positive data center projects.

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