A consortium of enterprises, academics, software engineers and public sector bodies has come together in a project called GreenDataNet to tackle the energy and emissions problems associated with urban data centre growth.
More than two per cent of all energy generated in Europe is now consumed by data centres. As more and more work gets outsourced to the cloud, as servicing mobile devices becomes increasingly important, and as the internet of things starts to become a reality this number is set to grow - and fast.
Many European data centres are in urban areas, and their huge power consumption is a growing problem where demand is already high.
"Demand is winning the race between demand and efficiency gains," said Cyrille Brisson VP EMEA for power quality at Eaton, the power management company that is leading the consortium at the project launch in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Some of the power gap will be filled by renewable energy such as solar PV or wind power. But such supply is intermittent by nature and needs to be backed up by a traditional power source to provide a continuous base-load. As the proportion of renewable energy increases this buffer becomes increasingly hard to manage and uneconomic to supply. Limitations of the existing grid means that renewable sources also need to be close to the data centre to avoid large losses.
One part of the GreenDataNet plan is to demonstrate a distributed smart grid of interconnected urban data centres that can make the best use of the local power generating conditions by switching IT loads to where there is most capacity - to a location close to a solar farm on sunny days or a windfarm when it's blowing a gale - in order to optimise power usage.
Another task is to smooth out peaks and troughs in supply by storing the energy produced by renewables for when its needed. Vehicle manufacturer Nissan believes that using depleted electric car batteries could provide a solution. Once a lithium-ion battery has lost 30 per cent of its capacity it can no longer be used in a vehicle. However, plenty of juice remains within and such batteries should be perfectly capable of handling the more regular loads demanded by data centres, the company suggests.
The consortium is also turning its attention to the many inefficiencies within the data centre. By integrating the management and monitoring of hardware, software, cooling and electrical substructure, a group of engineers at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) believes that significant savings should be possible by optimising data centre workloads.
Drawing on a broad mix of experience and practical and theoretical know-how, GreenDataNet aims to come up with solutions that will allow urban data centres to operate on up to 80 per cent renewable energy, while at the same time decreasing the average Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) from a European average of 1.6 to 2.0 to below 1.3.
"There is an increasing demand-supply imbalance, you need lots of different technologies to address that," Brisson said. "We have extremely different areas of experience, alone it would be impossible to cover all of this."
GreenDataNet is a €4.3m three-year project that is part-funded (€2.9m) by the European Commission as part of its Smart Cities and Communities programme.
Demonstrations and pilot projects will be created and the technologies produced as a result of the initiative will mostly be open source to allow others to build on the work.