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Data centers adopt vegetable oil as a cleaner fuel for generators

A row of standby generators at the Compass Dat Centers facility in Goodyear, Ariz. , one of the three locations where Compass will use HVO instead of diesel to fuel its generators. (Photo: Compass Data Centers)





























































































































































































































An increasing number of data centers are turning to vegetable oils to reduce their environmental impact. Compass Datacenters this week became the latest company to adopt HVO-based fuels to power generators that provide backup power to its data centers.

Compass says early tests show that using HVO can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its generators by up to 85 percent. This is why HVO has emerged as an important bridge to cleaner backup power, allowing data centers to move away from diesel fuel without having to replace thousands of equally expensive and critical generators.

The initial release will include generators at Compass campuses in Northern Virginia, Arizona and Texas, with Foster Fuels HVO. This initiative will “make our generators more sustainable. In addition, we significantly reduce particulates and sulfides compared to fossil fuels, and eliminate dirty smoke plumes for diesel,” says Adil Atlasi, Compass’s chief technology officer.

The Compass announcement is part of a larger shift in the industry, which includes some of the largest operators. Although it has not made any press announcements, Equinix is ​​setting the framework for the widespread adoption of HVO in its global data center. Digital Realty has begun using HVO blends in one of its data centers in Paris, and STACK Infrastructure, Kao Data and Ark Data Centers are also testing the use of HVO in backup generators.

“HVO fuel is significantly better for the environment than conventional mineral diesel engines, as it is 100% renewable, biodegradable, sustainable and non-toxic,” said Simon Lawford, technical sales manager at Crown Oil, a fuel supplier to Kao Data.

Many data center operators see hydrogen fuel cells as the most sustainable long-term standby power solution. But hydrogen is years of viability on a large scale in production systems, and HVO is a promising option that can cut greenhouse gas emissions and work with existing equipment.

There are challenges with HVO, including whether production can keep up with the demands of a rapidly growing cloud campus. But super-customers are now demanding greener options, making sustainable backup power a key competitive factor for data center developers.

Microsoft engines switch away from diesel

Diesel generators play a central role in ensuring that mission-critical data center applications never fail, as part of a redundant electrical infrastructure that also includes UPS systems and batteries. With generators deployed in nearly every data center around the world, switching away from diesel fuels is a major undertaking.

The major turning point in the data center industry’s approach to backup power came in July 2020, when Microsoft said it would eliminate its reliance on diesel fuel by 2030 as part of its goal to be carbon negative. With its deadline set, Microsoft embarked on a push to replace diesel generators with cleaner technologies.

In addition to building its own data centers, Microsoft has been a leading customer of data center developers, leasing hundreds of megawatts of capacity from companies that provide wholesale data center space. Almost immediately, developers began searching for alternatives to diesel-based power to remain relevant in the search for future business from Microsoft and other high-band operators.

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Shaun Varney, executive director of data center strategy and innovation at JLL, noted that the critical role of backup generators in keeping websites and applications online was evident last year, when diesel generators kept Texas data centers online during the “deep freeze” energy crisis.

“We need generators, and they’re not going anywhere for a while,” Varney told DCF in a recent podcast. “They have a huge installed base, are very reliable and have a global distribution infrastructure to supply, so when you run out, a truck comes and fills you up.

said Varney, who was previously an executive with Kohler Power, a generator vendor. “Replacing fuel does not change your operations and maintenance protocols, and you can reduce your emissions. This is a smart approach that advances existing technology.”

More Operators Testing Cleaner Generator Fuel

HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) is a synthetic “biodiesel” fuel developed from vegetable oils and fats, including feedstocks such as tallow oil, soybean oil, waste cooking oils and animal fats. It has chemical properties similar to diesel oil produced from fossil fuels. Source oils with hydrogen and catalysts are heated at high temperature (usually 300 to 390 °C) and pressure.

The resulting fuel does not require any major modifications to the existing infrastructure and can be used as a direct replacement for diesel. It eliminates microbial growth, generating sludge that can contaminate fuel lines and potentially cause the engine to stall. Major vendors, including Caterpillar, Cummins and Kohler Power, have approved HVO for use in their generators.

Crown Oil provides HVO fuel, an alternative to diesel, for generators at its Kao Data Center facility in Harlow, England.  (Photo: Kao Data)

Crown Oil provides HVO fuel, an alternative to diesel, for generators at its Kao Data Center facility in Harlow, England. (Photo: Kao Data)

In June 2021, Microsoft said that backup generators at its new data center in Sweden would run on a fuel containing tall oil, a renewable by-product of forestry and paper production. Microsoft has worked with Caterpillar to ensure that Evolution delivers the same technical performance as conventional fuels, with lower net emissions. This was the first of a number of implementations in a single facility.

  • In July 2021, Kao Data Centers converted all standby generators on the Harlow, England campus to HVO. “It shows how our industry can take a very simple and beneficial step forward for the benefit of the environment,” said Gerard Thibault, Chief Technology Officer at Kao Data.
  • In February, Digital Realty said its Interxion PA8 facility in Paris would use HVO in its generators. Fabrice Coccio, President of Interxion France, described the move as “another proactive step in implementing our strategy to reduce our carbon footprint, and leading the way as an industry leader.”
  • STACK Infrastructure has been testing HVO with Caterpillar since early 2021 and has included a Caterpillar capable HVO model in the design of the new TOR01 data center in Toronto. “Our adoption of high-voltage fuel energy technology can be viewed as a positive use case for industry and the future use of electricity in markets around the world,” wrote Tin Fung, Senior Director of Energy and Sustainability and Brian Medina. , Strategy and development in a blog post.

Compass goes one step further, implementing HVO in data centers across three major markets. “Standby power should be part of our sustainability strategy, and Foster Fuels provides us with an innovative and scalable solution that we anticipate will become an industry standard,” said Nancy Novak, Head of Innovation at Compass. “Our decision to adopt HVO-based biodiesel for generators is consistent with our previous efforts, such as carbon concrete; Both focus on reducing greenhouse gases.”

Wat Foster, Foster Fuels President and CEO, said the launch of the Compass is “the result of close collaboration between our teams to address an important issue. Our ultimate goal is to provide HVO renewable diesel fuel across the United States.”

“Our ultimate goal is to provide renewable HVO diesel fuel across the United States.”
Watt Foster, Foster Fuels

Equinix studies HVO for new buildings

If HVO becomes more widely available, it will become easier for data center operators to adopt it via their footprints. One company that is exploring a significant HVO commitment is Equinix, which operates a large global network of data centers.

In its 2021 Sustainability Report, Equinix said it is “piloting HVO at multiple sites and qualifying the supply chain to assess the transition away from diesel. … Compared to diesel, HVO can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%.” Equinix says it is committed as follows:

  • Use of HVO-capable generators in all new construction installations and retrofits where available.
  • Pilot HVO at existing sites and implement technology on a larger scale as available.
  • Evaluate the supply chain for HVO and other alternatives and work to ensure that purchases of HVO or other diesel alternatives avoid and reduce deforestation.

HVO is a “fantastic solution to those assets that already exist,” David Hall, a technology and architecture fellow in Equinix’s chief technology office, said during an interview with DCF earlier this year. “We have 250 data centers, and they have absolutely good generators that are a bunch of carbon and a bunch of investments. The problem is that the fuel source is poor from a sustainability perspective.

“We believe that globally, we can access HVOs that deliver improvements to generator emissions performance, without any real impact on efficiency, with only a slight reduction in absolute power output. It’s a great shift away from (diesel).”

Equinix is ​​aware of the potential trade-offs. Cultivation of some source material for HVOs, such as palm oil, has contributed to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Some countries and fuel providers have pledged not to use palm oil in their HVO products.

“We think we can get HVOs in ways that don’t require clearing large areas of rainforest in order to make the materials needed to produce HVOs in the first place,” Hall said.

Greenea biofuel analytics company expects HVO production to increase significantly in North America, going from 1.9 million tons of capacity in 2020 to 12.6 million by 2025. With Europe poised for a similar increase, HVO supply appears to be extending even further. Problematic areas for deforestation.

It remains to be seen if this increase in production can keep pace with the kind of growth needed to support the data center market, which saw extraordinary demand in early 2022 as cloud players and social networks race for cloud capacity over long-term growth. But HVO is increasingly seen as a major step toward more sustainable backup power.

“HVO has a very bright future,” Varney said. “It talks about the permanence of the generator, and it also talks about innovative ways of thinking about how to solve this kind of difficult challenge.”

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