Is cooling the top efficiency metric for tropical data centers?

As networking spreads globally, the need for additional data center facilities in remote locations grows more acute. Tropical locales have become a focus of developers, but these locations offer a host of unique challenges when it comes to data center design considerations.

Specifically, data center facilities located in the tropics have to be more aggressive with cooling. Without the ability to rely on seasonal colder weather, this means an increased power draw to keep temperatures at acceptable levels. Increased power usage cuts into the efficiency rating of data centers. So the question is: How can centers in efficiency-adverse locations find metrics by which to offset their increased power needs?

Forces of nature
When it comes to energy efficiency, data centers evaluated by U.S. agencies are rated by PUE. This takes into account the relationship between energy consumption and metrics by which the centers offset this consumption. By that standard, even if a facility is drawing a large amount of energy — like facilities located in hot climates might do to address cooling issues — the facility can still be rated "efficient" if they are able to fall under expected usage in other areas.

"It did not take long for the cooling system to be considered the greatest enemy of PUE," writes Paulo Cesar de Resende Pereira in DataCenter Dynamics. "As a consequence, its efficiency has become closely related to its reduction. There is nothing more tempting than getting something for free; for instance, a data center facility that could potentially be cooled by nothing more than the forces of nature."

Solar driving zero net energy computing
While tropical facilities are struggling to compensate for their cooling needs, many northern facilities have been instituting solutions that could potentially see even more success in southern locales. One such solution is to use solar power generation to offset power draw.

The city of Holyoke, Massachusetts has been the site of the new Mass Net Zero Data Center (MassNZ) initiative. This experimental, solar-powered, micro data center is the first of its kind and features solar panels located next to the micro facility to provide power, as well as renewable cooling systems, batteries and micro-flywheels for energy storage.

"Data centers play an indispensable role in our increasingly connected world, but they are voracious users of energy," said Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy of UMass Amherst, one of the institutions supporting the initiative, as reported by The News. "MassNZ is a hands-on research and educational resource that will help us understand how to decrease a data center's energy footprint and increase its use of renewable energy in an era when we are striving to reduce dependence on fossil fuels."

Shifting from cooling to solar
While the initiative does have a focus on renewable cooling systems, the real revolution it could bring to tropical data center facilities is in its use of solar power. Sun is in no short supply in many tropical climates, so the free energy that could potentially be provided through the environmentally sustainable process could prove a smarter application of technology.

"Taking photovoltaic power as an example of free energy, when data centers are transformed into generation plants, they may apply this energy to the grid and offset it – not only from an energy standpoint but also economic," writes Cesar de Resende Pereira. "Once the concept of free energy is settled, it is inserted into another new term – EcoPUE – bringing a new idea for calculating PUE that is now even more environmentally friendly and presents a sustainable aspect, where the reduction of energy consumption in the data center is linked to the subtraction of the energy generated by the photovoltaic generation system."

In essence, this would reframe the metric by which PUE is measured, turning it from reducing usage directly to offsetting usage. This also more effectively uses the natural resources found in abundance in these locales.

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