AWS wind farm highlights renewable energy trend

Wind power will be the latest fuel for the AWS cloud, but smaller data centers may find challenges in using renewable energy.

As Amazon prepares to break ground on a Midwestern wind farm to power AWS data centers, smaller data center operators may be wondering about the role renewable energy could have in their facility.

The cost of using on site generation for a small or medium size data center is prohibitive.
Andrew DonoghueEuropean Research Manager at 451 Research

On-site generation of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, still remains rather uncommon in the data center industry.

"The cost of using on-site generation for a small- or medium- sized data center is prohibitive," said Andrew Donoghue, European Research Manager at 451 Research.

In his recent report "Energizing Renewable-Powered Data Centers," Donoghue wrote that "unless very large investments are made, wind turbines and solar photovoltaics do not generally provide the power density required for data centers; even large expanses of solar panels, for example, may only provide a few hundred kilowatts -- insufficient for larger data centers that consume megawatts of power."

Smaller data center operators can seek out colocation providers that buy or produce renewable power. While on-premises renewable energy sources are impractical to run the entire data center, a small installation of solar panels or wind turbines could be enough to power the non-IT load.

However, data center operators will continue to focus on uptime and that will "always trump" efforts to get power from renewable sources if uptime may be threatened, Donoghue said.

Wind farms power data center grids

The AWS wind farm will have 65 turbines on Fowler Ridge, near Fowler, Ind. Siemens, which has been awarded the contract to build the wind farm, will supply, install and provide long-term service for the turbines. The wind farm is expected to generate around 500,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of wind power per year as early as January 2016, according to Amazon.

The total cost of the wind farm project has not been disclosed, but Siemens Financial Services committed $150 million in financing toward the project.

AWS said in a blog post that energy from its new wind farm will be used to help power both current and future AWS cloud data centers. Amazon plans to build a new facility in New Albany, Ohio, according to published reports. The cloud giant already has data centers in Dublin and Hilliard, Ohio -- both about 250 miles to the east of the planned wind farm in Indiana.

The power generated by AWS' wind farm will not directly supply the data center; instead, it will supply the grid, said Jacob Anderson of Siemens.

If data center operators invest in renewable energy, even if it doesn't directly supply their data center, it is important that it is located near the data center, said Gary Cook, IT Sector Analyst for Greenpeace, a group that has criticized Amazon and other IT providers' effort to get energy from renewable sources.

Last year, Amazon set a goal of using 100% renewable energy to power AWS worldwide. The Fowler Ridge project is part of that commitment. There are seven large technology companies, including Amazon, that have all made a similar commitment, according to Greenpeace.

"They are all at various points in their journey," Cook said.

Microsoft is carbon-neutral, he said, because the company is buying carbon credits. But some of those credits are on the other side of the country from where the company uses energy.

"The purchase has no impact on their energy consumption," Cook said.

Using wind to generate power -- versus buying it from other, less clean sources -- helps reduce carbon emissions, according to Roberto Rodriguez Labastida, an analyst for Navigant Research in London. He said large amounts of coal generation have been retired in the United States and Europe and renewable generation is a cleaner substitute for the coal capacity that is retired.

The turbines will not always generate energy and some of the energy needs of the AWS data center will be met with power from the grid, Anderson said, noting that all of the power generated by the turbines will be consumed.

To completely offset the need to buy electricity, the AWS wind farm would need to produce enough electricity to cover for the data center needs on aggregate.

"At times, the plant can produce more than the needs of the plant and sell it to the grid and on other times less that the data center requires and buy from the grid as long as they offset each other at the end of the month/year," Labastida said.

One of the biggest advantages of owning a wind farm is the predictable cost of energy versus buying it on the open market. After installing the wind farm, the ongoing costs would be maintenance and operating.

"You don't have the big third component -- fuel," Anderson said.

AWS has not said how much money it expects to save on wind power, but wind power prices -- with the help of government subsidies -- is lower than natural gas and coal.

AWS is part of a growing trend of large data centers getting energy from renewable sources. Facebook's data center in Altoona, Iowa, gets its power from a wind farm in Wellsburg, Iowa, where MidAmerican Energy installed 60 wind turbines that produce over 140 MWs of energy annually.

"This is good business for the purchaser," Anderson said about the increasing number of data centers that are being powered by wind. "This is a trend we have seen."

Renewable energy problem close to a solution

One of the biggest challenges to powering a data center around-the-clock with renewable energy is the way that renewable energy is produced sporadically. The best way to overcome that challenge is by storing energy -- which is closer than ever. Tesla recently released its Powerpack battery, which is being pitched as a relatively low-cost way to capture and store energy.

Donoghue said one option to meet the fluctuation of renewable energy would be to adjust workloads within the data center to match the availability of the renewable energy. That's the focus of the work being done by the RenewIT group. Energy storage -- such as the technology being developed by Tesla -- is also an important part of it, he said.

Wind and solar power are not the only renewable sources getting attention from data center operators. Last week, CenturyLink announced that one of its data centers in Moses Lake, Washington, will be powered by hydroelectric power which will ultimately support up to 30 MWs of IT workload.

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