Green IT – So That IT Does Not Become a Climate Killer

From power consumption in data centers to electronic scrap from discarded hardware – the opportunities for green IT in companies are manifold. Our experts Dr. Rainer Weidmann and Dr. Tim Krüger explain what is possible today, what they envision for the future - and as evident is the interface to more efficiency.

Detecon: What does a holistic view of the CO2 balance for IT operations look like?

Weidmann: We look at the entire life cycle, from production and regular operation to removal from service and scrapping. Green IT does not stop with the hardware (i.e., servers, monitors, or memory chips); its primary focus is above all on the data centers where consumption is measured in megawatts rather than kilowatts. In terms of energy, these are the hot spots, and it is immensely important to ask how I actually procure my energy for their operation.

What opportunities are already available for “green” energy procurement?

Weidmann: Theoretically, a fuel cell can supply 25 kW for IT. If the fuel cell is operated with biogas, the carbon footprint is neutral. One alternative is green hydrogen, i.e., hydrogen produced by photosynthesis or electrolysis using electricity generated by renewable energy sources such as wind power. The problem with renewable energy sources such as wind and sun is still that, although they supply sufficient energy from the perspective of the world as a whole, it is absolutely necessary to take into account local lulls. Storing the energy generated by these systems is currently the biggest problem.

Krüger: Green hydrogen is a good variant for a coupling with low CO2-emissions. The challenge of the moment is that green hydrogen is still much more expensive. In North Germany in particular, however, there are already multiple initiatives aimed at significantly reducing emissions over the next ten years through the use of wind power and the production of hydrogen that can be easily stored – even if the energy efficiency during generation is lower than the direct consumption of the electricity. Another hurdle is buffering the fluctuations in the feed-in of wind and solar power where the desired technological solutions are not yet available. Nevertheless, the networking of European electricity will enable a certain degree of distribution.

An innovative approach for data centers as the main consumers is also the recovery of district heating. The heat in the data center is used for other purposes. A load shift increases the processing load whenever a lot of electricity from renewable energy sources is being fed in.

How do you rate the current significance of green IT in companies?

Weidmann: In general, we believe that activities are headed in the right direction. During the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, the focus is not on green IT. We, too, have projects that have been postponed for the time being. But the clock is ticking, as is evidenced by current events in the world. And politicians and legislators have no choice but to respond. This also means that the prices for CO2 and many legal regulations are on the way. When companies notice an impact on their profits, they will react. We, of course, are ready to present the right portfolio to companies.

What does this type of portfolio look like?

Weidmann: There are always two ways to reduce CO2: either a company switches technologies or it cuts back on power consumption. We can calculate business cases for these situations.

Krüger: Generally speaking, I see three primary influencing factors:

1. Environmental protection legislation
2. Customer expectations
3. Energy costs

As far as environmental protection legislation is concerned, politicians are calling for climate protection and energy efficiency, and they are setting targets – some of them very strict – in conjunction with penalties for non-compliance. A well-known example is the CO2-limits for new cars. Prices for CO2 can also be used to steer developments to a certain degree. We strongly recommend that companies anticipate this trend because the initial planning horizon for a data center is about ten years, and it is very difficult to make any major changes later on.

As far as customer expectations are concerned, we have seen that a company’s carbon footprint is becoming increasingly important to its customers, and not just since the Fridays for Future movement. This trend will continue.

Last, but not least, there are the energy costs. Energy-efficient IT saves power costs, especially in data centers. In view of the rising electricity prices and the ongoing growth of data centers, this is an especially convincing argument for conservative decision-makers. Moreover, it is comparatively easy to exploit this savings potential because the new technology is much more energy-efficient and green electricity is available. But there are also many opportunities in purchasing activities, from hardware that consumes fewer resources to utilization periods, additional uses, and recycling. Because there are so many different options, we believe that IT has a duty to act. Yet we also see many positive opportunities for IT in these measures.

Time and time again, there are references to the mindset that companies need to establish green IT. To what extent do companies benefit from this?

Krüger: This mindset undoubtedly exists at large companies such as Apple, Google, and Deutsche Telekom. All of them have committed to the use of renewable energies, and their data centers are being operated with renewables. These companies serve as good role models above all when they communicate this fact openly. Apple, for example, has declared that its production of IT will have become climate-neutral by 2030 and is taking the required steps in the supply chain to ensure that this goal is achieved. This is a smart decision from the viewpoint of the corporate image. These companies benefit from being active players in the shaping of an important trend and are perceived as pioneers by customers and shareholders.

How can a data center be converted into a “green IT-friendly” facility?

Weidmann: As I see it, the most significant factor is air conditioning. Deciding to operate a data center at an ambient air temperature of 27 degrees instead of 20 degrees makes an incredibly huge difference. And if containment is used throughout, i.e., if heterogeneity in the data center is avoided as far as possible, savings of over 30 percent of the total energy for the data center could be achieved. Just from the air conditioning.

Krüger: Right. Fans in data centers are often operated at higher energy levels than is really necessary for cooling. There is significant potential for savings here.

The interface to efficiency is evident. What all is possible here?

Weidmann: You have to think above all about redundancies. A data center today still maintains diesel generators for emergency power generation in case the municipal utilities are unable to deliver. Rethinking these concepts is still a vision at present. One possible alternative might be a giga-battery powered by wind or solar energy. You would have to calculate how much area would be required.

Krüger: There is potential for even better connections of the overhead grids all across Europe, which would simplify the distribution of the variable loads of renewable energies. More power lines should be built in Germany, for example, for the transport of wind-generated power from the north to the high-consumption south. On a European scale, plans could be made to generate more electricity in southern Germany using solar energy or to store temporarily some of it in Norway in the form of hydroelectric power.

From the point of view of the data center, there are also two ways to shift operations. I can distribute the load locally and allocate most of the processing load to the data center in a region where plenty of renewable energy is currently being generated. In other words, I take the processing power to the electricity. The second possibility is temporary load distribution: I concentrate computing processes on the times during the day when there is a lot of electricity at a particular location.

Thanks to IoT, we can interconnect more and more devices. Isn’t that counterproductive for the green IT balance?

Krüger: Indeed, there will be more and more sensor technology. The added small devices have multiple consumers that in turn must communicate centrally via Wi-Fi, 5G, or other wireless communications. It goes without saying that the number of devices alone will make it profitable to ensure that their operation and interconnections are energy-efficient. Thought is already being given to ways to bring computing power closer to the end device; edge data centers are one example.

Weidmann: Then the data center will be right next to the solar park. Small edge data centers can be installed in the base of a wind turbine, right at the source. They are connected to the normal grid as well so that they still have power even when the blades are not turning. The transport costs for electricity would be completely eliminated. That is green IT of the future!

Thank you very much for the informative interview!