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Increasing Demand for Data Center Cooling Drives Innovative Solutions

Young Hoon Kim
Dec 03, 2020

Guidehouse Insights

Social networking, online video streaming, mobile apps, and other IT advancements have led to a soaring demand for information.  There has been a six-fold increase in data center workloads since 2010 with the relatively flat energy consumption due to the enhanced energy efficiency. However, current energy efficiency technologies are unlikely to keep up with future energy demand from new data-hungry information technologies such as AI, 5G, blockchain, self-driving vehicles, and others. On top of this growing need for data, the COVID-19 pandemic added more demand for information. The sudden crisis revealed how vital data is in all aspects of our lives. While working from home, people’s virtual meetings require massive cloud computing and network power. This pressure on IT infrastructure will increase demand for new data centers, leading to tremendous energy consumption.

Growing Demand for Cooling in Data Centers

The demand for data encourages tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and many others to build hyper-scale data centers (HDCs), which exceed 5,000 servers and 10,000 square feet. The utilization of HDCs has increased, so combining this high adoption trend with cooling requirements will drive energy consumption further. According to an Aspen Global Change Institute report, data centers’ information technology devices devour vast amounts of electricity, that is ultimately converted into heat, requiring a cooling process. This cooling process then consumes a significant share of power consumption, followed by storage drives and network servers, as the following figure shows.

US Data Center Electricity Use: 2014

Data Centers

(Sources:Aspen Global Change Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

Innovative Cooling Solutions in HDCs

Many tech companies are developing innovative cooling solutions for data centers. Several planned and pilot projects in HDCs use innovative cooling solutions. Facebook's Singapore data center includes a new state point liquid cooling system, dramatically reducing the mechanical cooling required form air conditioners. The data center is also powered by 100% renewable energy.

South Korean online platform giant NAVER Corporation plans to build a cloud data center using natural cooling. The facility will circulate air chilled by recycled rainwater captured on the facility's roofs, thermal mass, ice storage, and heat recovery to minimize mechanical cooling.

Microsoft’s Project Natick deployed its data center 117 feet deep underwater. The data center cools using subsurface seawater (leveraging cooling system from submarine vessel designs) and is powered entirely by locally generated renewables. The results show that aquatic data centers provide less failure rate, which is one-eighth of shown from those on land. The research team hypothesized that a sealed aquatic center could improve overall reliability. On land, various factors can lead to equipment failure, including corrosion from oxygen and humidity, temperature fluctuations, and bumps from technicians replacing components.

Getting to Carbon-Free Data Centers

For data centers, maximizing efficiency and decarbonization requires a combination of approaches. Guidehouse Insights recommends regulators, OEMs, and engineering and construction companies consider the following:

  • Higher temperature operation: The most recent developed data server can operate upper-temperature limits of 95°F (35°C) or as high as 113°F (45°C) due to technical advancement. With this technical enhancement following ASHRAE recommendation, raising the temperature by 1°F (0.55°C) at the server inlet can reduce data center energy consumption by 4% to 5%.
  • Sustainable cooling system design: To configure typical vapor compression cooling, apply a heat recovery design (used by a heat pump) following building efficiency certification and use equipment with low global warming potential refrigerants.
  • Renewable power sources: Data center workloads could shift from areas with low renewable penetration to places providing surplus. Additionally, equipping data centers with more efficient lithium-ion batteries with higher energy density and longer lifespan can provide ancillary service when the grid needs support.

Data center technology shows significant potential for design improvements like cooling, sustainable design, and renewable power to become carbon free.