AI Craze Complicates the Challenge of Maintaining Environmentally Friendly Data Centers

Western Texas, from the oil rigs of the Permian Basin to the wind turbines spinning above the High Plains, has always been an attraction for corporations seeking fortunes in energy.

Presently, those dry ranch lands are providing a new lucrative possibility: data centers.

Lancium, an energy and data center management company establishing operations in Fort Stockton and Abilene, is just one of numerous firms nationwide wagering that establishing data centers near producing locations will enable them to access underutilized clean power.

“It’s a fight to acquire land,” expressed Lancium’s president, Ali Fenn.

In the past, companies constructed data centers near online users to better address consumer demands, such as streaming a program on Netflix or playing a video game hosted in the cloud. However, the rise of artificial intelligence necessitates large data centers for training advanced language models, reducing the importance of proximity to users.

As more of these facilities emerge throughout the United States, concerns arise regarding their ability to meet the demand while remaining sustainable. The environmental impact from building the centers and the stacks of costly computer equipment is significant on its own, and their power requirements have increased considerably.

Merely ten years ago, data centers consumed 10 megawatts of power, but utilizing 100 megawatts is now commonplace. The Uptime Institute, an advisory group for the industry, has pinpointed 10 massive cloud computing campuses across North America with an average size of 621 megawatts.

This surge in electricity demand coincides with a peak in manufacturing in the United States over the past fifty years, straining the power grid even further.

The Uptime Institute forecasted in a recent analysis that the sector’s various net-zero objectives, internal benchmarks, would become significantly more challenging to achieve in light of this demand, potentially resulting in setbacks.

“This extends beyond just data centers,” stated Mark Dyson, a managing director at RMI, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainability. “Data centers are a preliminary stage for a larger surge in power consumption that is already occurring and will continue to grow in the United States due to industrial, vehicular, and structural electrification.”

The data center sector has progressively embraced more eco-friendly approaches in recent times, becoming a substantial investor in renewable power at the corporate level. Sites leasing wind and solar capacity surged by 50 percent year over year as of early 2023, exceeding 40 gigawatts, a capacity that continues to expand. However, demand surpasses these investments. The necessity for more processing power is clogging the interconnection queue and resulting in temporary solutions.

Energy-intensive data centers in full swing further complicate the equilibrium. According to a report released on Wednesday by real estate services company JLL, data centers in the construction pipeline will, upon completion, consume as much power annually as the San Francisco metropolitan area. Most sites coming online this year are already leased; in high-demand markets, significant space will not become available for at least two years.

“The goal is to activate as many gigawatts as possible, as quickly as possible,” stated Ms. Fenn of Lancium. “Individuals will band together in whichever way possible to achieve that.”

This has rapidly expanded development beyond the well-established primary and secondary markets, such as Northern Virginia, Dallas, and Silicon Valley.

Competition is intensifying in regions offering inexpensive land and accessible power. For instance, Amazon declared last month its intention to establish a $10 billion initiative in Mississippi, the most extensive economic development project in the state, encompassing data centers and solar energy generating sites.

“Anyone with a substantial power source has now become a fresh data center market,” noted Jim Kerrigan, managing principal of North American Data Centers, an industry consultancy.

Artificial Intelligence represents only a small portion of the overall global data center footprint. The Uptime Institute forecasts that by 2025, A.I. will climb to 10 percent of the sector’s global power consumption, up from the current 2 percent.

“With so many other demand drivers, construction has been advancing at a lightning pace,” remarked Andy Lawrence, executive director of research at the institute. “A.I. is the cherry on the cake.”

Last year saw a 25 percent increase in the construction of data centers, according to real estate firm CBRE. Nvidia, the leading provider of high-tech chips powering this technology, reported record profits in data center sales last week, with 2023 revenue reaching $47.5 billion, a 217 percent surge from the year prior.

The nation’s energy grids are unable to accommodate such high demand, stated Christopher Wellise, vice president of sustainability at Equinix, a global data center operator. “Technology is advancing more rapidly than our infrastructure has adapted,” he remarked.

Equinix, which operates 260 data centers worldwide, integrated 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 through power purchase agreements, and has enhanced efficiency by 5 percent in its operations over the past year, stated Mr. Wellise. Design firms like Gensler have been testing new designs incorporating mass timber to reduce the embodied carbon of data centers.

Additionally, A.I. can assist in this regard: Equinix has utilized the technology at a data center in Frankfurt to regulate cooling loads and adjust energy consumption in response to changing weather, boosting the center’s efficiency by 9 percent.

Niklas Sundberg, a sustainable IT expert and chief digital officer at Kuehne + Nagel, a transport and logistics company in Sweden, emphasized the necessity for the industry to focus on investing in renewable power generation capacity.

Certain sites have considered installing on-site gas power plants to compensate for grid deficiencies. Although it might be cleaner than existing power sources, it contributes to the industry’s considerable carbon footprint.

Furthermore, legislators have proposed increased transparency and action. The Senate introduced a bill in early February to evaluate the environmental impact of A.I. Lawmakers in Northern Virginia, renowned as Data Center Alley, have advocated for the imposition of sustainability objectives for data centers.

Suhas Subramanyam, a Virginia state senator, put forth several regulations, including one requiring data centers to source at least 90 percent of their power from renewable sources to qualify for incentives. “I don’t want the next generation to be burdened with the consequences of our decisions today,” he emphasized.

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