Carbon negative supercomputing is closer than it appears

Lenovo: Carbon neutral energy sources and green recycled energy are the key

Paid Feature Data centers are notorious consumers of power but there is a revolution brewing.

The most progressive data centers, along with systems and facilities partners, are working to push beyond carbon neutrality to become carbon negative—a state where more CO2 is removed than is released, which allows reinvestment into even more innovation on green data center initiatives.

Even though that sounds far-fetched, given the wattages involved, there are some surprisingly simple steps to start down the path to carbon neutrality first, giving way for those carbon and consumption savings to roll into broader green computing efforts.

Nearly every data center today uses at least part of its energy from fossil fuel-derived energy sources. Considering most data centers consume more than 50X the power per square foot than a typical office and that power draw is growing 12 percent each year, now is the moment to start rethinking operations—everything from how facilities are built and cooled to how individual servers contribute to carbon dioxide (CO2) emission.

What this means is that the vast majority of data centers are carbon positive with reliance on fossil fuels to power them, and less-than-efficient methods of dealing with the heat produced by that power.

Walk into almost any data center facility and aside from the noise bellowing from inefficient fans and facility-scale air cooling units, the heat is pervasive. In most facilities, every watt ends up circulating in a room, with far more wattage spent trying to reject or dispose of it.

But there is a better way. Many cutting-edge data centers look to concentrate that heat, and turn it into a zero-emission energy source that can be recycled for other uses. This has the added benefit of making the energy vampires (air handling units, massive fans, etc.) obsolete.

The first step on this journey is to understand your footprint today. If you have not yet set a baseline for energy consumption in your facility consider the following based on a typical 1U server. With all the standard elements (DIMMs, CPUs, etc.) the draw is around 700 watts with roughly 60 watts dedicated to the server’s fans. That is electricity that does not calculate an answer, or move data through the system. It just spins a fan.

The time is now to rethink everything from power source inputs to data center designs

Take all of this to rack scale and the consumption problems mount. With a 25 kilowatt rack, 2.2kW is just for the fans. But wait, there’s more! If we zoom out even more to the facility level the impacts of inefficient IT operations are even more profound. Most data centers operate on a hot aisle/cold aisle concept, where chilled air is blown to the front of the racks, (the cold aisle) and hot air expelled from the back (the hot aisle). That hot air is pulled in by air handlers that pump it to the chilling complex to restart the cycle.

The point is this: The time is now to rethink everything from power source inputs to data center designs. That process begins with establishing a baseline of the full scope of power consumption and resulting CO2 emissions. That foundation paves the way to build an efficiency improvement plan where every watt of power saved from IT operations can have a direct link to CO2 reduction.

“Fewer watts consumed, means less electricity generated, which means less CO2. If we can drive significant efficiency gains, the next step is to take some of those power cost savings and re-invest them into green power or carbon offset credits to further reduce the remaining energy consumption,” says Scott Tease, Vice President and General Manager of Lenovo’s HPC and AI business. “These double benefits accelerate the value of each watt of power we save.”

One of the reasons CO2 reductions have been difficult for companies to tackle is because change is required but also, because the concept of carbon emissions does not have (at least on the outside) an obvious, immediate business benefit or delivery on rapid ROI. However, with that baseline of consumption established, the monetary value of these shifts becomes immediately clear. Working toward carbon neutrality or better has clear financial benefits.

Take that baseline consumption number and multiply it by the number of hours per year a system runs and put that in context of what the power company charges. As an example above, we will use 10 cents per kw/hour. A CO2 number can also be arrived at by determining the power source (coal highest, natural gas a bit lower, hydro or solar almost zero). Using power combined from all sources, this example emits .92 pounds of carbon emissions per kw/h.

Around one-third of that spend is just for cooling and fans. “The monetary side is easy to understand but what a ton of CO2 actually means is a bit more nuanced,” Tease explains. “These molecules have mass. That amount just for the operation of fans is the same weight as two elephants and at the data center cooling level, another eight elephants. That is ten elephants worth of CO2 required to run these systems. And over all, this is the carbon emissions equivalent of ten cars driving 110,000 miles per year. It is significant.”

While we have dabbled in theoreticals above, is there an example of a truly efficient, carbon negative data center in practice? Look no further than the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, a joint venture between five universities with efficient supercomputing and sustainability as core to its mission.

Executive Director of the center, John Goodhue and team created a 15MW data center that leverages inexpensive hydroelectric power and worked with the municipal electric company to integrate other renewables. They established an early baseline of power consumption, looked for the areas where the most reduction would be needed (in their case summer cooling), but were able to find free cooling 70 percent of the year.

The liquid cooling piece is worth mentioning in particular. Aside from a focus on helping customers build truly efficient, sustainable systems, Lenovo provides technology platforms like the Lenovo Neptune liquid cooling innovations for the system foundation.

“To go from carbon neutral to carbon negative we need two things,” Tease says. “First, to start with green power in. After all, no emissions electrical sources mean no emissions. Through efficiency gains and moving to CO2 offsets, this can be possible for many. Second, we need to rethink the heat coming out. Today, it’s treated like waste but imagine what is possible when we can harness and concentrate it to be recycled. The key to this is deploying a platform like Lenovo Neptune.”

Lenovo Neptune is a warm water cooling technology that enables the recycling of heat from the data center. The unchilled water goes through to cool the system, passes through the server, making the water hotter, which can have immense value when integrated into building infrastructure or even something creative, like warming a swimming pool.

Carbon neutral energy sources and green recycled energy can push data centers closer to carbon negative supercomputing. The benefits of these savings can be rolled back into a host of other green technology innovations or even into research to explore next-generation materials and approaches for carbon emissions reductions in other areas.

Lenovo’s insights on the future of sustainable supercomputing might sound lofty but the company practices what it preaches with 922 percent carbon emission reductions since 2010 with goals to cut an additional 50 percent by 2030. Lenovo has been recognized by the EPA in rankings of the Top 30 for green energy innovation.

Sponsored by Lenovo.

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