Microsoft Azure: The future of data center back-up energy

Aug 06, 2021 | Posted by MadalineDunn

With more and more data center companies committing to climate change initiatives, the industry is also looking at how it can make backup energy more sustainable too. 

For decades, diesel has served as the primary fuel for traditional backup generators - however, diesel fuels, whilst getting cleaner, still emit greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants. Moreover, while backup generators are only typically used in public grid outages, a fully carbon-neutral future doesn't involve diesel.

Of course, the main challenge is balancing efficiency with sustainability, but it's a challenge that must be overcome if the industry is to seriously tackle the climate crisis.

That said, there are a number of different operators leading the way, with biofuels, batteries and hydrogen fuel cells offering real alternatives to diesel.

As Baxtel reported in June, Kao Data has moved into the HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) arena in a bid to reduce carbon emissions. This is synthesised from vegetable oils and can directly replace diesel while also 100% renewable, biodegradable, and non-toxic. Moreover, with the biofuels market expected to minimally grow over the next five years, it could become a more viable option.

Elsewhere, other data center companies are looking to batteries as the future of backup energy. Specifically, Google and Microsoft are two of the big players that are looking into large lithium-ion batteries. Google is currently trialling this at its Belgium data center to assess feasibility, while Microsoft has teamed up with Total to do the same. However, while batteries are gradually getting cheaper to buy, significant practical issues cannot be overlooked, like their inability to be relied upon for substantial and sustained outages.

Then, there are hydrogen fuel cells, which Microsoft is also investigating as an alternative to fuel backup generators. Hyper-efficient and capable of providing ten racks of servers with power for two days, hydrogen fuel cells seem extremely viable. That said, it's a rather expensive option that also presents transportation and storage issues, requiring temperatures of more than –200 Celsius.

It's clear that the path to carbon-neutral is a long and complicated one, but promising moves are being made within the industry. That said, when it comes to the climate emergency, time is of the essence, and tech companies must overcome the diesel challenge before it's too late.

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