Innovations in Sustainability on the Journey to 1000x Scale
“We need our digital world to be sustainable – in societal, economic, and environmental terms. This entails not just business models that are economically viable, but business practices that are socially sustainable.”
This is the third in a series of five blog posts reflecting the top-of-mind issues discussed during the Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council meeting on April 25, 2019.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing renewable energy, prioritizing water stewardship, eliminating waste, incorporating greener products, and being a good neighbor.
These are all admirable goals. And they are all projects that must be driven by solid R&D and innovative thinking that can deliver better and better results far into the future.
Corporate interest in sustainability has grown tremendously over the past decade. In the last five years alone, the scale of renewable energy purchases from companies has grown by the factor of 20 to 30 times, according to Bill Weihl, Facebook’s sustainability director.
Leading the charge
Digital infrastructure is among the industries most interested in the success of sustainability efforts and perhaps most committed to cutting-edge research and development investments to advance its energy responsibilities.
Infrastructure Masons is helping to lead that charge. At the beginning of the year, iMasons launched its new Sustainability Committee, chaired by Patrik Ohlund. Ohlund is CEO of NodePole, Sweden’s commercial investment and development hub providing dedicated support for investors within the cloud industry, as well as other emerging energy-intensive industries.
“Corporate interest in sustainability has grown tremendously over the past decade.” –Click to tweet
The Sustainability Committee’s mission is to inspire, encourage and develop resources to help the digital infrastructure sector reduce its environmental impact. Projects planned for 2019 include:
- Formulating the criteria and processes for launching and maintaining an iMasons Sustainability Champion Award. Joe Kava, 4thDegree Master iMason and VP Data Centers at Google, was awarded the inaugural Infrastructure Masons Sustainability Champion Award at DataCloud World in Monaco in June.
- Formulating the iMasons rank/level requirements for a 4th degree, recognizing the member’s contribution to sustainability
The challenge of sustainability and innovation in the digital infrastructure industry was a top of mind issue during the Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council meeting.
One end user talked about innovative R&D projects to boost data center sustainability. “Our group is charged with looking five years into the future, and five years is a long time in our industry,” he said about his company’s search for innovative R&D projects to boost data center sustainability. “We’ve done very interesting things with fuel cells and underwater.”
The end user characterized the projects as “moon shots that we’ve learned from and spun off into other areas.” Essentially, he said, “we’re trying to shorten the distance from fuel to bits. We’re trying to reduce the number of dumb electrons and increase the number of smart electrons.”
Meeting demand while minimizing impact
One partner talked about sustainability in terms of minimizing environmental impact. “Everything we do starts with a hole in the ground. We can’t keep making holes in the ground for rare earth materials or other things. It’s not sustainable.”
“We’re moving indigenous people away from their ways of life, we’re ruining macro and micro environments,” he said. “If we’re going to scale 100x or 1000x we have to think all the way back to the hole in the ground.”
“We can’t keep making holes in the ground for rare earth materials or other things. It’s not sustainable.” –Click to tweet
The same partner suggested turning to other industries as we look for innovation. He talked about a new type of fuel cell designed for energy storage in the data center space. “Electric vehicles (EVs) use the same raw materials and power electronics for fuel cells and energy storage as we want in the data center space. So let’s rethink what is the best platform for a data center and accelerate development of that nascent thing more appropriate to our industry and let the EV industry have what’s probably more appropriate for them – so we’re not competing for resources.”
Sustainability: A new frontier
Another member talked about sustainability as “the next big challenge” for the data center industry, one that “probably is entangled with engaging new talent because young people need purpose in life.” He talked about testing the energy usage of a data center in the Arctic versus one in the Mediterranean (“they use cold, we use sun,” he said).
The same member suggested that Infrastructure Masons might set a standard and “rate providers on sustainability.” (A more sustainability-focused version, perhaps, of the Data Center Performance Index.)
Efficiency by design and regulation
One partner talked about sustainability in the context of regulation. “For example, there are new air quality permitting requirements in Santa Clara and Ashburn. If we’re growing even 10x it’s going to be a problem. In Europe refrigerants are getting regulated.”
“Is innovation going to be able to keep up with the regulation?” the partner wondered.
A related discussion during the Advisory Council meeting concluded that collaboration may be required for digital infrastructure to overcome challenges and thrive. That may be true for sustainability efforts, as well.
“Perhaps iMasons might set a standard and rate providers on sustainability.” –Click to tweet
Green power tariffs are one example of a successful partnership between utilities and commercial enterprises in regulated markets. Green tariffs are utility-created programs which allow corporations to purchase energy and renewable energy credits from specific renewable energy projects at a fixed price.
Facebook is using green tariffs and other tools to support global operations with renewable energy. Facebook works with its utility partners to make sure that its green tariffs are available to other customers, making it possible for more companies to achieve their renewable energy objectives as well.
Funding global initiatives
Just as we must encourage cooperation and collaboration between regulatory agencies and corporations, it’s also essential that the dots be connected between technology and finance.
Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said that technology and finance – the main enablers of the advancement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the coming years – were center-stage at Davos this year. “Even the most technologically challenged of us would be awed by the discussions outlining the potential of artificial intelligence, big data and blockchain to make the world a better place,” he said.
Leaders in technology can play a big part by helping businesses realize the SDGs by incorporating the goals into their business model.
These thoughts have been echoed recently by the World Economic Forum in its report, Our Shared Digital Future: Building an Inclusive, Trustworthy and Sustainable Digital Society: “Finally, we need our digital world to be sustainable – in societal, economic and environmental terms. This entails not just business models that are economically viable, but business practices that are socially sustainable. We need viable investment models for innovation and shared infrastructure.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Previous posts in the April 2019 top-of-mind series:
- Power Shift: What Will It Take to Get to 1000x Scale?
- Key to Scale: Collaboration, Cooperation, Coopetition
Upcoming posts in the April 2019 top-of-mind series: