The Impact Of Innovations In Clean Energy And Green Technologies – Two seismic changes in society are happening simultaneously: the digitalization of almost everything, in what some are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the shift to renewable energy, driven by the climate crisis and other world events.
At the confluence of these movements, there are thousands of data centers operating 24 hours a day to support a wide range of critical services.
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When people talk about the cloud, they are actually talking about data in data centers. These are real places on Earth: buildings that house banks of computer processors humming with our work, our research, our games, the stories of our lives and the roadmaps to our future.
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Although energy data centers consume approximately 1% of all electricity consumed globally, their impact on the shift to renewable, sustainable energy sources is disproportionate. Some of the impact is direct and tangible, some is indirect and more difficult to measure.
“Energy use by leading technology companies is relatively insignificant compared to their economic, financial and even social footprint,” George Kamia and László Varo wrote in an International Energy Agency analysis. “Yet it is precisely because of this enormous financial footprint, combined with their enormous cultural and scientific influence, that these companies can play such a potentially major role in tackling climate challenges.”
One of the most visible ways these companies have influenced renewable energy markets is through power purchase agreements (PPAs). With a PPA, a company agrees to purchase renewable energy from a project that is not yet online, for a specified period of time at a fixed price, usually between ten and twenty years.
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This guarantee of stable income for a new project is a force in expanding the renewable energy market, says Kyle Harrison, head of sustainability research at BloombergNEF.
“Business demand in particular is a huge catalyst for building clean energy around the world,” he says. “If you think about technology, Microsoft and some of these other companies, even though they use renewable energy, are going to have to do more deals to meet their targets” because demand is growing so quickly.
For example, Microsoft was the second-largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy through PPAs in 2021. PPAs, which provide a long-term commitment, raise the financing needed to bring new energy generation online. Many of these deals are taking place in Europe, including Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Spain. In total, Microsoft has signed PPAs that will help bring more than 10 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity online.
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On November 23, the company announced a PPA in Ireland for more than 900 megawatts of new renewable electricity capacity. There are 1000 megawatts in one gigawatt. Microsoft predicts that data centers in Ireland will be powered by 100% renewable energy from new PPA-supported projects by 2025.
As Microsoft has expanded its data centers to meet customer demand, it has also doubled down on its commitments to reduce carbon consumption and help tackle the larger problem of climate change, said Brian Janus, general manager of energy at Microsoft. These commitments are reflected in everything from large-scale renewable energy purchases to innovation and collaboration, as well as advocating for policies that support a sustainable path forward.
“It is important to make our voices heard to help influence the development of policies that support rapid decarbonization,” he says.
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It is important to make our voices heard to help influence the development of policies that support rapid decarbonization.
BloombergNEF’s Harrison also said it’s important for companies like Microsoft to be proactive in seeking policies that promote clean energy.
“Lobbying utilities and working with regulators to gain more access to purchasing clean energy is a big role that Microsoft and other companies are playing right now,” he says.
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Microsoft’s clean energy advocacy starts internally. By 2025, Microsoft will transition to a 100% renewable energy supply, meaning the company will have agreed green energy PPAs for 100% of the carbon-free electricity consumed by all its data centers, buildings and campuses.
By 2030, Microsoft will source 100% of its electricity use, 100% of the time, from carbon-free energy purchases. By 2050, Microsoft aims to remove from the environment all carbon emissions the company has emitted since its founding in 1975, either directly or through electricity consumption. Data centers can play a role in helping achieve these goals.
Furthermore, the ability to ensure that the cloud meets Europe’s needs and serves European values is a key part of the new set of European principles for the cloud, Microsoft Vice Chairman and President Brad Smith announced in May this year after discussions with a number of European partners.
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Using innovative approaches, Microsoft has demonstrated how data centers can save energy, reduce emissions and even return energy to the grid.
In Finland, residual heat from two new data centers will contribute to a district heating system that provides heat to more than 250,000 people in winter. Microsoft’s data center region in Sweden uses rainwater and outside air to cool servers, while the heat they produce is used to keep workplaces warm for employees. Microsoft is also piloting batteries in Sweden to replace diesel generators as backup systems.
Microsoft data centers in Ireland use batteries to maintain uninterrupted power. In a collaboration between Microsoft and Enel On days when wind and/or solar energy production fluctuates, Microsoft’s backup batteries can be used to maintain a steady flow of energy to customers.
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This means fossil fuel power plants will be needed less frequently to maintain stable production, reducing emissions and fuel costs.
“The great thing about the project in Ireland was that these batteries were already there,” says Microsoft’s Janus. “What was needed was to provide a digital level of intelligence to determine what the network needed to balance the frequency in the system?”
“These assets that are ubiquitous in data centers are located all over the world. And that creates a huge opportunity to see the data center as more than just a consumer of energy, but also as a producer and partner of network operators to improve reliability and ultimately the energy transition that we are talking about.”
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It is “the work of technology companies in digitalization, artificial intelligence and information systems that could be potential game changers in creating the smarter, more flexible energy systems needed to achieve net zero emissions,” write Kamiya and Varo in the IEA analysis.
BloombergNEF’s Harrison also mentioned the potential to develop digital tools to help grid operators shift load during periods of high demand. He says the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) can help create energy efficiency in a number of ways.
AI can be used for everything from solving supply chain problems to creating more accurate local weather forecasts and helping suppliers find ways to generate more energy.
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While artificial intelligence and machine learning will drive demand for cloud computing, Janous notes that these advanced tools will also likely be essential to solving some of the biggest problems we face.
“Energy transitions have historically been very slow because there is a huge amount of infrastructure involved,” he says. “We need a close partnership with grid operators and energy companies in Europe to help them understand the most effective and fastest ways to accelerate this transition to renewables.
Top image: Animated illustration (GIF) of a data center surrounded by examples of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy, with buildings and power lines in the background. How do you tell the complex story of the Research, Manufacturing Partnership and Maryland’s impact on clean energy – all in two pages? With thoughtfully designed infographics.
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Maryland is ready for clean energy investments and the School of Engineering “A. James Clark’ from the University of Maryland knows exactly how to do that. The Maryland Energy Innovation Institute (MEI), founded in 2017
) brings together leaders from business, industry and academia to support the development of clean energy technological innovations that, in turn, support Maryland economically and environmentally.
Guides academics through the commercialization process, the steps taken to transform ideas into commercially viable energy technology – a process that many people are unfamiliar with. To generate awareness about MEI
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And to educate its potential partners, state legislators and funding organizations, UMD partnered with 2communiqué to develop an infographic for the school magazine,
. We immediately knew we had to think beyond the confines of a magazine distribution and develop a horizontally formatted piece that would also serve as a legislator handout, Powerpoint slide, and animation for their website.
Our work began with a plan to guide content development; we knew there was a lot to discuss in this small space – confirming priorities was imperative. Our partner, Michelle Lansing, interviewed multiple key stakeholders, created a plan, and developed the final copy of the piece. Because there were multiple target groups, the content was tailored to speak directly to the reader.
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Working under tight deadlines, we simultaneously developed three different visual guidelines for the UMD team to review: one closely related to
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