Running a successful sustainability program is a significant challenge facing CEOs. In some instances, the simple solution is to go out and build a renewable power source or purchase power that is created from renewables in a power purchase agreement. Unfortunately, not all companies have the resources to build a wind farm or solar array or enter into a power purchase agreement. However, all companies do have the power to conserve energy and to look for creative solutions to help reduce greenhouse gases.
My current favorite CEO on the sustainability front is Onsemi’s, Hassane El-Khoury. In his keynote at Electronica 2022, El-Khoury used the example of reducing energy consumption in his home to demonstrate that we all need to focus on conservation. El-Khoury stated “Everybody talks about, ‘You need to go solar’,” he said. “How about first you reduce what you need so it’s not that expensive to offset it?” El-Khoury also discusses the need for individual efforts as well as corporate efforts to help reduce the growth of GHG. “Individuals, not just big companies, must become part of the effort to reduce energy use.”
While I have mentioned this previously, at some conferences I attended about AI or server farms, I heard it said that it’s all right to increase our power consumption, because we are using renewables. If that is our thinking as an industry, it will be extremely challenging to get to net zero emissions. Ever. El-Khoury, mentions that even though we need servers to crunch the data to help reduce our energy consumption, as we add new servers, we need to effectively reduce the energy it takes to run that server.
As new server farms are added, companies are looking for creative ways to power them, and provide back power. While many server farm companies use renewables as the primary source of power, they still need backup power to run the facility if the grid goes down. In many cases, the backup power comes from generators that are run on diesel or natural gas. Needless to say, the GHG produced by the generators does not look good on the annual sustainability report and requires offsets to achieve net zero, there are alternatives such as batteries, but these may not work for extended outages.
A new Microsoft facility in San Jose, CA is using renewable natural gas (RNG) as the energy source for the 60-megawatt backup generator. The generator is hooked up to a microgrid that is attached to the server farm.
The move is sustainable on two levels. First, the RNG will offset carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas when the data center needs to use its emergency backup generators. Second, by transforming animal waste into environmentally beneficial fuel, the use of RNG keeps methane out of the atmosphere. While CO2 lasts longer in the atmosphere, methane is about 25 times more potent as a GHG. The RNG also means you are not creating GHG by drilling for natural gas. The use of RNG also brings a level of circular economy to the process, as food and animal waste are used to generate the RNG, and the methane generated by the process is not released into the atmosphere.
RNG and other sources of methane are becoming more popular for generating energy. In doing some research a few years back, the use of RNG was limited due to the cost of extracting and purifying the methane to make it usable in a power plant. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the natural bonanza is in the dumps. BP just acquired a company called Archaea’s which has been working at extracting natural gas from dumps and isolating and purifying the methane, such that it can be burned in a generator to create electricity.
The use of biogas to generate electricity, or to provide natural gas appears to be growing rapidly, and hopefully, the methane that is leaking into the atmosphere will be captured and used in place of shale gas as an energy source.
While a bit outside the electronics world, Aspen Ski resort is powered by methane. Aspen Co. uses methane captured from an abandoned coal mine to run its 4 resorts.
According to the article, there are 48,528 abandoned coal mines in the United States that leak methane into the atmosphere. The power plant produces three megawatts of baseload power, which is enough to run the four resorts around Aspen. The power from the facility goes into the local utility grid and not to the resort directly.
So, there is a direct benefit to the surrounding community from the project. The power plant has been running for 10 years demonstrating the longevity of the technology, and the methane that is used to run the power plant.
So, while we don’t all have a coal mine or a garbage dump in our back yard to tap as a source of energy, we as individuals can look for creative ways to help reduce our carbon foot both at our companies as well as at home. As El-Khoury said in his keynote. Individuals, not just big companies, must become part of the effort to reduce energy use.