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When your phone or laptop gets hot from using it for a while, you know it’s using a lot of data. Imagine then how much heat is generated from data centres used by the likes of Facebook or Google! Usually, these centres are moved to colder countries to cut down on energy costs, but Microsoft went a different route. In 2018, Microsoft sank a data centre off the coast of Orkney in an experiment called Project Natick to determine whether placing these centres underwater would result in them being more reliable and energy-efficient. In September, the company retrieved the centre from the ocean floor and called the experiment a success. Could underwater data centres be the future of data storage?

Microsoft concluded that the centre packed with 855 servers and 27.6 petabytes of storage had a lower rate of failure than a conventional data centre; when it was retrieved from the seabed, eight of the servers had failed, one-eighth of the failure seen on land, according to project leader Ben Cutler.

Orkney was chosen for the trial because of its temperate climate, as well as its renewable energy capacity (all of the city’s electricity comes from wind and solar power). The idea was that the cost of cooling towers would be lower if they were underwater, an important consideration as more data is stored in the cloud and data centres demand vast amounts of energy to function. There were no issues in keeping the underwater data centre supplied with power. 

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Advantages of Underwater Data Centres

Placing centres underwater allows them to operate with greater power efficiency, especially in regions where the grid on land is not considered reliable enough to operate them sustainably, partly due to the decreased need for artificial cooling for the servers because of the conditions on the seafloor.

With Project Natick, Microsoft intended to show that smaller data centres could be kept closer to where customers need them instead of routing everything to centralised hubs. 

On land, data centres are subject to corrosion from oxygen and humidity and controlling shifts in temperature. However, in a water-tight environment, fewer issues arise. In addition to keeping the contents cool, underwater data centres also have logistical advantages. Half of the world’s population lives within 200 kms of the ocean, making these centres potentially easier to deploy when extra capacity is needed. 

Thankfully, the capsule’s impact on the environment is minimal. The sounds of the server’s fans were drowned out by the noise of nearby shrimp, while the heat it generated affected the water only a few inches around the vessel. 

Next, Microsoft will look into seeing how it can scale up the size and performance of these underwater data centres by linking more than one together to combine their capabilities. Additionally, it will look into recycling the servers once they reach the end of their life. 

Featured image by: newsatlas.com

Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. It means that for the rest of the year, we are expanding our ecological deficit by using up local resources and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 22, three weeks later than 2019’s date of July 29 as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, meaning that humanity consumed less resources than last year. 

According to research conducted by Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation, COVID-19- related lockdowns resulted in a 9.3% reduction in humanity’s ecological footprint compared with the same period last year. 

However, we would still need 1.6 Earths to keep up with our current use of ecological resources. 

While Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, called this year’s data “encouraging,” he called for further progress to be made “by design, not by disaster.” 

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CEO of Global Footprint Network Laurel Hanscom adds, “Sustainability requires that both ecological balance and people’s well-being be ensured over the long-term, therefore this year’s sudden Ecological Footprint contraction cannot be mistaken for progress. This year more than ever, Earth Overshoot Day highlights the need for strategies that increase resilience for all.” 

According to the research, Australia’s biocapacity (the capacity of a given biologically productive area to generate an ongoing supply of renewable resources and to absorb its spillover wastes) dropped to nearly half during its 2019/ 2020 forest fire season, making the country run a biocapacity deficit for the first time in its recorded history. In contrast, Scotland- with its extensive decarbonisation strategy and significant biocapacity assets- is about to close its long-held biocapacity deficit. 

The three-week shift between Earth Overshoot Day 2019 and 2020 represents the largest single-year shift since global overshoot began in the 1970s. Increasing global consumption saw the date arriving in July for the first time in 2019. 

Wackernagel days, “We’re using up the future to pay for the present. We’ve only got one planet and that’s not going to change. We’ve got a very simple choice, one-planet prosperity or one-planet misery.” 

The research organisation says that the resilience of companies, countries and cities depend on the ‘sound management of ecological resources’. To do this, we need to alter the way we produce our food, the way we move around, how many children we have and how much land we protect for wildlife. Reducing our overall carbon footprint by 50% would move the date back 93 days. 

Regarding food, the systems currently in use consume 50% of Earth’s biocapacity; we need to reduce the carbon intensity of food and the impact of food production on biodiversity while improving public health. Cutting food waste in half would move Earth Overshoot Day 13 days. 

The cumulative ecological debt is now equivalent to 18 Earth years, meaning that it would take 18 years to reverse the damage from overuse of natural resources (assuming overuse is fully reversible). Global Footprint Network estimates that if we move the date by 5 days each year, humanity would be using less than one planet before 2050. 

Concerns over energy consumption and the impact of fossil fuels on global warming are leading to radical innovations in the field of energy conservation. From advanced AI systems for utilities to simple design elements and smart architectural solutions, widespread adoption lags behind the pace of innovation.

Optimising Consumption: Innovations in Policy and the Market

The concept of net zero energy buildings (designed to consume only as much energy as they produce) has been around for some years, but the industry is still in a nascent stage globally. The US are at the forefront, with California leading the charge, and followed by a string of European countries.

Governments have played a pivotal role in levelling the policy field and spurring adoption of energy conservation strategies. California mandated all new residential developments to be net zero by 2020; commercial by 2030; and has also applied stringent rules on the retrofit market. Similarly, EU regulators have issued directives aimed at making all new buildings nearly zero energy by 2020.

The trend has slowly taken root elsewhere. The largest net zero commercial building in the US opened in Silver Springs near Washington D.C. last year, the Unisphere by the architectural firm EwingCole. The building uses a combination of solar panels, daylight harvesting, natural ventilation, radiant heating, hybrid cooling and pours excess electricity into the utility grid.

In Asia, the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment launched in February 2019, the island city’s ‘first new build net zero energy building’, using similar sustainable and energy conservation strategies.

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Verified Zero Energy Buildings Use Less Than Half the Energy of Typical Buildings in US3

Verified Zero Energy Buildings Use Less Than Half the Energy of Typical Buildings in US

Clever technological solutions, both big and small, support these green achievements.

Smart windows can control the light and heat entering a building or vehicle by turning from clear to dark, thus lowering air conditioning costs. The University of Nevada developed one prototype that does this quicker than any other, achieving 94% opacity in 60 seconds and also removes the unaesthetic bluish tint typical of similar products.

Smart thermostats adapt to user behaviour by learning the habits of a house’s occupants and adjust temperatures accordingly.

Timers can be applied to energy saving outlets to cut off power when chargers are not in use.

Higher up the spectrum, Google is using its AI system, DeepMind, to control its data centre cooling systems. Every 5 minutes, their cloud-based AI pulls data to predict how different combinations of actions will affect energy consumption in the future and identify what steps to take.

Efficient Production and Transmission of Energy

Artificial intelligence is a glittering allure for the energy sector. Researchers at Stanford University, for example, apply AI to enhance grid stability.  By assessing data on past power fluctuations and identifying weak spots, the grid harmonises inputs generated by multiple sources (hydropower, wind, solar) with seamless efficiency. Less power outages occur as a result.

Similarly, Google and DeepMind have been applying machine learning algorithms to the wind power industry. Algorithms correlate weather forecasts with historical turbine data predicting output up to 36 hours in advance. Doing so has strengthened the business case for wind power by obviating to one of the industry’s main issues namely the inconsistency of power generation resulting from unpredictable weather.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK’s National Grid have been using drones to inspect overhead lines and machine learning technology to analyse the drone footage. AI assesses the condition of the lines identifying the parts in need of repair or replacement.

All this is just a start. The potential to increase efficiency in the generation, transmission and storage of power is endless. According to Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, AI will give a boost to the renewable energy sector and allow utility companies to analyse consumer behaviour leading to an optimised distribution of energy supply and demand.

A Case for Widespread Adoption

To reap the benefits of technological prowess, innovation should go hand in hand with large-scale consumer adoption. A survey conducted of top European executives of utility companies by Roland Berger, another consulting firm, on the adoption of ‘smart’ utilities powered by AI, found that even though a majority of CEOs consulted believed that AI will have a big impact on their business, only 5% had a clearly defined implementation roadmap. 

Finding a Global Pathway to Adoption

The world can learn from the example set by California and the EU. Policy makers at all levels of government can create incentives for the adoption of energy-efficient technology from a municipal level up until the highest perch of government.

Tax breaks incentivise utility companies to adopt green technology. Deploying AI for example, can streamline the maintenance of power lines especially for providers in poor counties with little cash to spare for expensive physical monitoring by ground experts.

Progress is expensive. International bodies like the World Bank and IMF could step in to help their commitment to green financing. Other big institutional investors can follow the lead of Norway’s enormous sovereign wealth fund, which announced a multi-billion US dollar divestment from fossil fuels and is redirecting that money into green energy initiatives.

Finally, consumers can take it upon themselves to make informed choices and enlarge the market for energy conservation solutions by purchasing products designed to lighten humanity’s footprint on Earth.


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