Revisiting solar-powered data centers

Colocation services, public cloud providers and a wide range of organizations that rely on data centers to run critical applications prioritize uptime and continuity, requiring consistent power access. 

When such entities weigh the feasibility of purchasing solar energy to power their data centers, procurement specialists generally assess three critical factors:

  • Property: In order to keep a data center with tens of thousands of servers running 24/7/365, building managers need to consider how many solar panels would be required to do so. As one can imagine, 50 photovoltaic panels aren't going to cut it. 
  • Efficiency: According to The Data Center Journal, the majority of solar panels are only capable of converting well less than 50 percent of the rays produced by the sun into electricity. Not to mention, these units aren't necessarily cheap, so cost vs. output is a huge consideration during the materials acquisition process. 
  • Use: That's not to say companies couldn't power portions of their data centers with solar energy, say 30 percent. While some consumers may bemoan the fact that they're not deriving all electricity through renewable energy, they also don't have to worry about maintaining operability in a cost-efficient manner. 

Could new materials be the answer? 

The Data Center Journal pointed to a research endeavor by scientists working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who developed a two-dimensional metallic/dielectric photonic crystal that is capable of absorbing sun rays from multiple angles and sustaining incredibly high temperatures. The best part? It's affordable to make large amounts of the mineral.

How does MIT's solution work? It uses material that matches the sun's radiation, allowing it to convert the produced energy to a type of light that can more easily be turned into electricity. Apparently, the conversion process is what's causing the biggest problem for the research team. 

Too much space 

Given the fact that solar panels aren't as efficient as some believe them to be, a data center sourcing 100 percent of its energy from PV panels would need an incredible number of them to remain operable. Data Center Knowledge noted that a 50-acre solar farm is used to power a QTC Princeton data center, amounting to more than 57,000 panels in total. All in all, it generates 14.1 megawatts of power. 

From an environmental progress standpoint, this feat is amazing and sets a tone of optimism. In contrast, financially, such an array probably wasn't easy on the wallet, and there's no guarantee it will produce a consistent amount of energy on a day-to-day basis. 

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