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Can Data Centers Take Control of Clean Energy?
By Simon Irish
We are living in times of rapid change across the economy, while two areas stand out as changing especially quickly: tech and energy. The information society demands always-on access to data for commerce, communication, governance, as well as for burgeoning new applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning. However, processing, storing and using data in our expanding information society requires more and energy.
The amount of data is growing every day, and new and larger data centers are springing up to store it and deliver it on demand. Their power consumption is vast. The largest data centers demand 100 MW of electricity or more, the equivalent of 80,000 homes. The global tech sector is consuming 200 TWh per year or 1 percent of global electricity production. That is equivalent to the electricity consumption of Thailand or South Africa. What’s more, tech’s energy consumption is expected to grow by a third in the next 10 years.
This places the tech and data companies in a powerful position. As leading power consumers, these companies can influence how our future electricity system should evolve to be efficient and economical, with a new focus on environmental responsibility. Increasingly, we see tech companies making commitments to run exclusively on clean energy. There are a few existing ways for them to do this.
One solution for tech companies to secure clean energy is to partner with clean power providers and even enter into ownership agreements. This way, they can juggle their energy sources to provide a clean supply. I say “juggle” because wind and solar are available at different times. Sometimes they will have too much power, sometimes too little, and sometimes they will be using batteries to move it around. It’s highly complex to manage multiple sources in multiple locations, and doubtful they can guarantee to meet demand all the time. Unfortunately the structure of today’s power grid requires that a back-up plan of electricity based on fossil fuel must always be there.
Another method for tech companies is to buy clean energy certificates that match the power they consume with clean energy generated elsewhere. However, this is really a kind of an accounting trick. The clean energy does not literally power the data centers, which in reality run on whatever the electricity mix is in their location at any given time – potentially heavy on fossil fuels. Nevertheless, some companies have been able to match their consumption in this way, including Google, which has become the world’s largest purchaser of renewable energy.
Despite this success, Google is just one of many companies wanting to take the next step. They want to be certain they are using 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030, “to ensure that our electricity demand is met with clean energy every hour of every day, everywhere,” as the company stated in a blogpost in September. Ten more years to iron this out!
It sure would be a lot easier if these energy-hungry tech companies could use a dedicated and reliable clean power plant. It would be great if the plant could offer an always-on clean supply of power on a low-cost long-term contract. And it would be even better if the power plant could actually be located alongside the data center.
Generation IV nuclear power plants fit this need uniquely well. Terrestrial’s IMSR® embodies the key Generation IV criteria, including a small site boundary and safety advantages inherent to its design, which mean it can be sited almost anywhere.
The reason for this flexibility is its molten-salt design. IMSR® power plants operate at high thermal efficiency – 50 percent higher than conventional nuclear power plants, which use water for cooling and moderation. That means the IMSR® will produce 50 percent more power from the same size reactor. And it requires less space – you can site a 195 MWe IMSR® power plant on just 7 hectares (17.3 acres).
The advantage of high thermal efficiency maximises the benefit of one of nuclear energy’s key advantages – low and stable fuel costs. As a result, nuclear plant operating costs fluctuate very little compared to those of fossil fuel plants. IMSR® power plants can generate power at a levelized cost of under U.S. $50 per MWh, which is cost-competitive with natural gas and coal even when not facing periods of volatile prices.
The choice is clear for Big Tech companies wanting to guarantee their own clean power supply – a dedicated, 24/7 power plant that produces zero emissions and comes at an affordable price will leave any accounting trick or juggling act as a relic of a bygone era.
Furthermore, an IMSR® plant doesn’t need a huge water supply, and outside the small site boundary there is no need for anyone to even think about it. As it is a smaller and simpler design, it has a smaller price tag, can be constructed in less time, and is therefore easier to finance.
An IMSR® power plant is not the kind of nuclear plant that has to be sited in the middle of nowhere. Instead, you can envisage it close to the kind of industrial zones you see from the freeway all the time.
Co-located with data center operations, an IMSR® power plant could guarantee as much as 390 MWe of always-on clean power to an anchor client. Some of its power could also be sold on the grid, supplied to other nearby industrial activities or used to produce economical, clean hydrogen for transportation – all in the same industrial zone.
Flexibly located IMSR® plants can bring the benefits of the new Generation IV nuclear power sector to the doorstep of the booming tech sector, as well as other industries. This step change in how we deploy nuclear power can support tech’s ongoing growth and do so cleanly, guaranteed.