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The Data Center Race to the Bottom for Zero Carbon
By Nicola Peill-Moelter, Ph.D., Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability, Akamai Technologies
Since those early days, the number of global corporations committing to renewable energy and carbon reduction targets has soared. Several organizations have sprung up to support and accelerate corporate procurement of renewable energy, such as the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center (BRC), the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance (REBA), RE100, and Science Based Targets (SBT). BRC corporate members have to date signed power purchase agreements totaling 11,000 megawatts of renewable energy—enough to power about 3 million American homes. RE100 has 140 global companies committed to 100 percent renewable energy goals including cloud and data center service providers—AT&T, BT, Digital Realty, Equinix, Google, Iron Mountain, Microsoft, Rackspace, Salesforce, SAP, Switch, Telefonica, Verizon, VMware, Vodafone - and many customers of these suppliers. Seventy-six of the largest U.S. businesses have signed onto REBA’s Renewable Energy Corporate Buyers’ Principles that outline for utilities and regulators, the requirements of large corporate energy buyers to make renewable energy easily accessible and cost-effective. And to-date, 461 corporations have signed up to set science-based targets, that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at a rate commensurate with limiting global warming well below two degree Celsius, and begin the global transition to a low-carbon economy.
This unrelenting trend is not isolated to corporate America. Investors are taking note of companies’ risk exposures to the impacts of climate change, and how those risks are being managed. Earlier this year, Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, the largest investment firm, sent a letter to the world’s CEO’s, advising them to focus on long term, sustainable growth that includes addressing climate change. Annually, thousands of companies publicly disclose their energy and climate change metrics and management strategies to the investor-led CDP, at the request of investors and respondents’ customers, representing over $100 trillion in assets under management and purchasing power.
As Akamai’s senior director of environmental sustainability since 2008, I’ve observed this evolution first hand, and have leveraged it to inspire our own renewable energy and carbon reduction program. Akamai, a leading cloud platform provider with an extensive network of 250,000 servers residing in thousands of data centers in more than 150 countries, was one of the Internet companies targeted in Greenpeace’s 2011 report. In 2015, I proposed that Akamai should provide a renewable energy-powered, low-carbon network as a feature of our services that our customers would value. My evidence was that 25 percent of our annual revenue was derived from customers with 100 percent renewable energy goals, with more signing up every week; and that having our own goal would be a competitive differentiator. After developing a procurement strategy Akamai’s executive team and Board approved a goal that by 2020 we would lower our greenhouse gas emissions below 2015 levels by procuring renewable energy for 50 percent our global network operations, including our outsourced data centers. To date, we’ve signed three virtual power purchase agreements for new wind and solar projects in Texas, Virginia and Illinois that, when operational, will provide 23 percent of our global network load. We are also working with our colocation data center partners. In 2017, their renewable energy procurement in Europe, the U.S., Japan and Hong Kong, contributed 11 percent. We expect the electricity grids to kick in 15-20 percent clean energy by 2020; and we are looking to invest in a project in Europe to get us well past our goal before the close of the decade. And then we’ll figure out how to get to 100 percent, even for our servers in Antarctica.
If you’re a data center service provider and you don’t have a renewable energy strategy, your competitors are ahead of you. If you run corporate data centers, these facilities are likely responsible for a large fraction of your company’s carbon footprint, and your customers and investors are expecting you to be managing that with a decarbonization strategy that includes renewable energy.
If this is all new to you, you’re not alone and there’s lots of help. You just need to decide to get started. “My guidance would be to do what I did to speed you up the learning curve, and attend the upcoming information-packed BRC Buyers’ Bootcamp, December 4-6.”