As more and more of our world becomes digitized, the tangible impacts and externalities of our day-to-day lives become increasingly abstracted. But at the end of the day, as easy as it is to forget, the internet is not composed of ones and zeros flying through the atmosphere, but cables running across the ocean floor. The cloud is not, as the name would suggest, an ethereal and untouchable floating non-entity, but increasingly enormous clusters of servers at data centers around the world. And all of this analog infrastructure has a tangible – and in some cases severe – environmental impact.
Data centers are some of the worst perpetrators, consuming 10 to 50 times more energy per unit of floor space than a standard commercial office building. According to the United States Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, data centers collectively represent around 2% of the energy use of the entire United States. “As our country's use of information technology grows, data center and server energy use is expected to grow too,” the government agency reports.
Data has received increasing levels of scrutiny in recent years as the sector’s energy footprint grows at the risk of undermining efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions against the backdrop of increasingly desperate calls to mitigate climate change. But some scientists have hope that the data sector will not be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but rather the climate’s saving grace.
One of the emerging ideas in the booming and fast-evolving energy storage industry is the concept of “information batteries.” The idea is relatively simple: information batteries would “ perform certain computations in advance when power is cheap—like when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing—and cache the results for later,” according to an explanation by Ars Technica. The beauty of this concept is that it would not requite any additional infrastructure or specialized hardware, and would allow data centers to replace up to 30% of their current energy use with surplus renewable energy that would otherwise have gone to waste.
“Information Batteries are designed to work with existing data centers,” researchers Jennifer Switzer and Barath Raghavan wrote in a recent scientific paper outlining the concept. “Some very limited processing power is reserved for the IB [information battery] manager, which manages the scheduling of both real-time computational tasks and precomputation. A cluster of machines or VMs is designated for precomputation. The IB cache, which stores the results of these precomputations, is kept local for quick retrieval. No additional infrastructure is needed.”
Information Batteries are just one of a litany of nascent ideas for potential energy storage solutions. Renewable resources like solar and wind are variable – meaning that their production waxes and wanes according to weather patterns and time of day, unlike fossil fuels which can provide steady and controlled energy to the grid according to demand. This means that in a 100% renewable energy landscape, sometimes supply will far outstrip demand, and at other times demand will skyrocket when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun has set. Energy storage is therefore vital to make a green energy transition viable and reliable.
The problem is that, so far, the energy storage sector has been largely reliant on lithium-ion batteries, which can only hold energy for a limited number of hours, and which requires non-renewable rare Earth metals to manufacture. At present, the race is on to come up with the most reliable, efficient, and cost-effective long term energy storage solution, and the innovative solutions being proposed run the gamut from high-concept green hydrogen schemes to ideas as simple as relying on pulleys and gravity. “Information batteries” are one of the most unconventional ideas in the field right now, but could hold enormous potential for appealing to Silicon Valley and tech-happy angel investors.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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