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AI frenzy complicates efforts to keep power-hungry data sites green

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West Texas, from the oil rigs of the Permian Basin to the wind turbines that swirl above the High Plains, has long attracted companies seeking fortunes in the energy sector.

Today, these barren ranch lands offer a lucrative new opportunity: data centers.

Lancium, an energy management and data center company setting up operations in Fort Stockton and Abilene, is one of several companies across the country betting that building data centers near manufacturing sites will allow them to exploit underutilized clean energy.

“It’s a land grab,” said Lancium President Ali Fenn.

In the past, companies built data centers close to Internet users, to better meet consumer demands, such as streaming a show on Netflix or playing a cloud-hosted video game. But the growth of artificial intelligence requires huge data centers to train the evolving models in extensive languages, making proximity to users less necessary.

But as more such sites begin to pop up across the United States, new questions arise about their ability to meet demand while continuing to operate sustainably. The carbon footprint of building centers and racks of expensive IT equipment is significant in itself, and their energy requirements have increased significantly.

Just a decade ago, data centers consumed 10 megawatts of power, but 100 megawatts is common today. The Uptime Institute, an industry advisory group, has identified 10 large cloud computing campuses in North America, with an average size of 621 megawatts.

This growth in electricity demand comes at a time when manufacturing in the United States is the highest in the last fifty years and the electricity network is under increasing demand.

The Uptime Institute predicted in a recent report that the sector’s myriad net-zero emissions targets, which are self-imposed benchmarks, would become much more difficult to achieve in the face of this demand and that rolling back the clock could become commonplace.

“It’s not just about data centers,” said Mark Dyson, chief executive of RMI, a nonprofit focused on sustainability. “Data centers are a training exercise for a much larger wave of load growth that we are already seeing and will continue to see in this country due to the electrification of industry, vehicles and buildings.”

The data center sector has adopted more sustainable solutions in recent years, becoming a significant investor in renewable energy at the enterprise level. Sites that have leased wind and solar capacity jumped 50 percent from year to year from the start of 2023, to more than 40 gigawatts, a capacity which continues to grow. However, demand exceeds these investments. And the need for increased processing power results in backing up the interconnect queue and creating stopgap solutions.

Power-hungry data centers further complicate the situation. Data centers under construction would, once completed, consume as much energy per year as the San Francisco metropolitan area, according to a report. report released Wednesday by real estate services company JLL. Most of the sites put online this year are already rented; in popular markets, significant space won’t open for at least two years.

“You need to produce as many gigawatts as possible, as fast as possible,” Lancium’s Ms. Fenn said. “People are going to tinker with this any way they can.”

This quickly expanded development beyond established first- and second-tier markets, such as Northern Virginia, Dallas and Silicon Valley.

Competition is increasing in parts of the country with cheap land and available electricity. Amazon, for example, announced last month that it planned a $10 billion project in Mississippithe state’s largest economic development project, which includes data centers and solar power generation sites.

“Anyone with a significant power source is now a new market for data centers,” said Jim Kerrigan, managing director of North American Data Centers, an industry consulting firm.

AI represents only a small percentage of the global data center footprint. The Uptime Institute predicts that AI will account for 10% of global energy consumption in the sector by 2025, up from 2% today.

“They’ve been building at a breakneck pace with so many other types of demand drivers,” said Andy Lawrence, executive director of research at the institute. “AI is kind of the foam on top.”

Last year, data center construction increased by 25 percent, according to real estate company CBRE. And Nvidia, which supplies most of the high-tech chips that power this technology, last week reported record profit in data center saleswith revenue of $47.5 billion in 2023, an increase of 217% from the previous year.

The country’s energy grids can’t meet that kind of demand, said Christopher Wellise, vice president of sustainability at Equinix, a global data center operator. “Technology is evolving faster than our infrastructure has evolved,” he said.

Equinix, which operates 260 data centers around the world, has installed fuel cells from Bloom Energy to provide backup power to many of its data centers. The company is also reducing emissions by bringing more renewable energy to the grid, including through power purchase agreements, and has reduced the efficiency of its operations by 5% over the past year , Mr. Wellise said. Design firms like Gensler have been experimenting with new designs featuring mass timber to reduce the embodied carbon of data centers.

And AI itself can help: At a data center in Frankfurt, Equinix used the technology to moderate cooling loads and adjust energy consumption based on climate changes, making a data center 9% more efficient. more efficient.

Niklas Sundberg, a sustainable IT expert and chief digital officer at Kuehne + Nagel, a transport and logistics company in Sweden, said the industry should focus on investing in renewable energy production capacity.

Some sites have sought to install on-site gas power plants to fill network gaps. It may be cleaner than existing energy, but it adds to the industry’s substantial carbon footprint.

And lawmakers have proposed more transparency and action. The Senate presented a proposal at the beginning of February aimed at assess the environmental impact of AI. The legislators in Northern Virginia, known as Data Center Alleyhave pushed to impose sustainability goals for data centers.

Suhas Subramanyam, a Virginia state senator, has proposed a number of rules, including one that would require data centers to obtain at least 90 percent of their electricity comes from renewable sources to qualify for subsidies. “I don’t want to put my kids in a situation where, 20 years from now, they’re going to have to pay some bills for things that we thought were a good idea and turned out not to be,” he said. .

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