Powering Toward Leadership in Clean Energy
By: Chris Pennington, Director, Energy & Sustainability, Iron Mountain Data Centers
Data centers are significant electricity users, consuming about 1% of all power produced worldwide. This appetite for energy is intrinsic to the business: computers require electricity to run and so do the air-conditioning systems to cool them.
It isn’t surprising, then, that data center operators like Iron Mountain have been at the forefront of the transition to clean energy sources. Our data centers have used 100% renewable energy since 2017, and now we plan to take our commitment to the next level. So, how do we plan to go beyond 100% renewable energy?
First, it’s helpful to discuss what clean energy means. There are several renewable energy sources available. The two most common – solar and wind – have benefited from continuous technology improvements, making them consistently more affordable and accessible. The problem with both is that they rely on factors that cannot be controlled, namely sunlight and wind. Powering a data center entirely from these two sources would require an enormous amount of energy storage, and that technology isn’t yet available to compensate for all the intermittency at affordable prices.
Other clean energy sources exist, including hydroelectric, geothermal, hydrogen and nuclear energy. The first two are highly location-dependent and viable only in some regions. Hydrogen shows promise, but availability is limited and nearly all of the hydrogen produced today is derived from fossil fuels. While nuclear energy is widely used in Europe there are concerns over the long-term safety of the fuel and very limited expansion of this energy source is planned in the near term. While each of these sources will play a role in decarbonizing our electricity supply, there is no single solution that works well everywhere.
When it comes to setting goals, companies like Iron Mountain Data Centers, that buy an amount of generation from a renewable source that equals what they consume on an annual basis, are demonstrating 100% renewable energy volumes today. Over 340 companies have committed to go 100% renewable, and that number continues to grow. This is sending a strong demand signal to energy providers that access to clean energy is now a requirement.
While matching renewable energy on an annual basis is an important and impactful goal, there is an opportunity to make a bigger impact towards fully decarbonizing our electricity supply. This year we’ve enhanced our goal to achieve 100% renewable energy use 100% of the time by 2040. We’re moving beyond matching our volumes on an annual basis and seeking to source each hour of every day from a local, clean energy resource.
Every hour, every day
Achieving this goal is more challenging than it may appear. At the time we made our commitment there was only one other global company – Google – that had made the same commitment. In fact, they pioneered the effort. To date, Iron Mountain is the only colocation data center provider to set this ambitious goal.
While achieving 24/7 clean energy will be difficult, we see a number of benefits that come from pursuing this goal. It reinforces our focus on understanding hour-by-hour how much power each of our facilities uses and where that power is coming from. Not only does scrutinizing our hourly energy use help us identify efficiency opportunities, we will better understand the nature of hours not matched with clean energy. Knowing when these hours occur, how long they last and whether they are seasonal or not helps us collaborate with partners to develop new clean energy solutions to fulfill these underserved hours. It gets us laser focused on the hours we need to address in order to decarbonize the grid, and because we are large energy buyers it is likely the new solutions we find for our unmatched hours can be beneficial to other companies as well.
We will also be looking at how we consume power from the grid, and the possibilities to optimize our consumption when clean energy is abundant. This is in addition to upgrading our facilities with the most energy efficient systems and building every new data center to comply with the BREEAM sustainability assessment method so that we are using only what is necessary and eliminating waste. Where possible, we also look to generate power on-site as we have done in New Jersey with our large solar rooftop system.
Achieving 100% renewable energy use 100% of the time will not happen overnight and will require exciting innovations and new technologies to fully achieve our goal. We will seek to place more new clean energy onto the grids where we operate and explore how we can optimize that with how we consume. While the number of companies making a 24/7 carbon free energy commitment may still be small, it is growing and building momentum.