09 November 2016

Everyone uses the cloud more than they realize — every household brand is on the cloud. That includes banking institutions, Internet brands and online properties like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Netflix. Today, companies and individuals alike have an Internet presence, and that Internet presence isn’t just sitting in some white fluffy place. It’s sitting on thousands of enormous warehouses full of servers, batteries and wires. The growing challenge for data center operators is to figure out how everything will be waste managed, or better yet, recycled.

Running a sustainable business goes beyond just using recyclable materials because the recycling process isn’t always safe for the environment. That’s not what consumers want. They want companies to use recycling processes that are also economically and environmentally sustainable. This is a big challenge for data centers. The electronics used to create the cloud don’t last forever, and data centers need to dispose of thousands of servers and hundreds of thousands of tons of batteries at the end of their lifecycles.

While “the cloud” is such an endearing nickname, have you ever wondered what happens to all that equipment?


The Cloud Needs an Enormous Amount of Energy


Everything that comes from the cloud, whether that’s a transaction, picture, email, text, or video, uses a significant amount of energy. The Natural Resources Defense Council projects that the amount of electricity consumed by data centers will increase to roughly 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually by 2020. This amount is the equivalent of the annual output of 50 power plants, will cost American businesses $13 billion annually in electricity bills, and emit nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year.

Managing a large cloud infrastructure in a sustainable way is a challenge when you’re using unsustainable resources. One solution is to use renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower to feed the ever-growing energy needs of these server farms. Many data centers have already upgraded power purchase agreements to use global renewable resources. The one major sustainability consideration that’s been largely ignored is the batteries required to keep the cloud running.

Batteries Are The Bridge

Trillions of dollars of commerce, social media, messaging interactions, breaking news and every other interaction on the Internet runs through data centers. An interruption to any of these could be catastrophic. To maintain continuous service, data centers generally have three sources of power: public utilities, generators and batteries. 

Electricity consumed by data centers will increase to roughly 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually by 2020, emitting nearly 100 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year.
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Public utilities are the main source of power, but the grid’s getting weaker and isn’t 100% reliable. During a power outage, data centers use on-site diesel generators that can run for days, which is why the cloud still works during a massive power outage in an area. Since firing up the generators takes from six to 10 minutes, batteries are the bridge between power sources. Once the public utilities are running and stable after the outage, the process is reversed, and the data centers rely on batteries as power is switched back from the generator to the public utility.

A Sustainable Cloud

Managing equipment at data centers is analogous to keeping your refrigerator full of food. If you’re worried about sustainability in your refrigerator, you’d start with your milk.

Batteries and servers are to the Internet what milk is to your refrigerator — they’re perishable and have to be replaced at the end of their usefulness. Like the milk, batteries have a huge impact on a data center’s overall sustainability. Unlike the milk in your refrigerator, these battery banks take up an enormous amount of space. A typical data center has several large rooms of floor-to-ceiling battery banks that can weigh more than a million pounds.

Data centers, for the most part use either lead-acid batteries, which can be recycled, or lithium-ion batteries, which cannot be recycled because the compounds that make up these batteries are extremely dangerous. As such, lithium-ion batteries create a huge sustainability problem for the future. What do you do with lithium-ion batteries when they’re dead? Since they can’t be recycled in an economically or environmentally efficient manner at present, they instead become a waste management issue. Lithium-ion batteries are typically landfilled, and new lithium is mined to make new batteries. The list of problems with lithium-ion chemistries is long.

For data center operators, to send lithium ion to waste management processes and then to the landfill costs about $2 per pound — that’s $500,000 for every 250,000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries.

Conversely, lead-acid batteries have the only sustainable battery chemistry and are the only type of battery that can be fully recycled. Currently, more than 96% of all batteries in the world use lead-acid chemistry. Lead-acid batteries are safer and more efficient power sources for data centers. In fact, lead is the most recycled material in the world, ahead of paper, plastics, glass, aluminum and steel.

The traditional recycling process for lead can be very pollutive, and so that this process is cleaner and more sustainable, Aqua Metals created the world’s first fundamentally non-polluting, water-based, room-temperature process for recycling lead acid batteries. The AquaRefining process keeps the lead wet and requires no human interaction with lead in dangerous forms. This process can be powered by renewable electricity resources as well. Smaller, vastly more efficient AquaRefining centers can also help to streamline the supply chain by co-locating recycling centers with battery manufacturers and distributors.

Apple moved to wind and solar power energy sources and bought forests in Vermont that are being sustainably managed -- Apple plants a new tree for every tree that's cut down for packaging.
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Batteries are a huge piece of the puzzle for the cloud, but they aren’t the only piece of the cloud that needs to be recycled. Servers, for example, comprise a large part of these systems, but the harsh reality is that servers in their entirety aren’t recyclable and also become a waste stream. These are very complex sets of electronics, and if you imagine the circuits, silicon, various materials in the screens, casings, chassis, plugs, and everything else that comprises a server, only some parts can be recovered.

Things like wires and cables last a lot longer. Most wires are made from copper, which is also smelted at end of life, but copper or fiber optic cable has much longer life than other parts of the data center. Much of the copper wire infrastructure, including the first telephone networks, is still in service today. If batteries and servers are like the milk and eggs in your refrigerator, the copper wire and fiber optic cable is like red wine — you can keep it much longer, relatively speaking.

Tackling the problem of recycling lead-acid batteries in a sustainable manner is a huge leap towards a cleaner and more sustainable cloud.  

Green Businesses Do Better

Consumers have made the sustainability practices of companies an important issue and forced big brands to focus on this. Companies need to listen to consumers because consumers vote with their dollars. Along with the government, organizations like Greenpeace are becoming industry watchdogs. Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean initiative provides grades on a scale of “A” through “F” to technology companies regarding their sustainability.

In the inaugural 2010 report, Apple received a grade of “D”. Since then, and not necessarily because of the Greenpeace grade, Apple has earned the status of “Most Improved”. Apple moved to wind and solar power energy sources and bought forests in Vermont that are being sustainably managed — Apple plants a new tree for every tree that’s cut down for packaging. This company has realized that unless they’re deploying sustainable business practices, consumers won’t buy their products. Turns out, what’s right by the environment is the right strategy for their business.

When it comes to recycling in the cloud, companies are building and executing strategies to incorporate sustainability as part of their branding and thought leadership. While government bodies and industry watchdogs can pressure businesses through regulations and ratings, many businesses are already going above and beyond these pressures to maintain a truly sustainable business and build their brands. The goal of creating a sustainable lifecycle for the cloud is still just that, and with everyone’s continued efforts, the cloud will continue to brighten from gray to white.

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