African Tech Voices: Clean energy - the key to economic recovery and environmental resilience
As we continue to strive for a cleaner planet, governments, industries, and organisations around the world are uniting to build a sustainable future. The time is ripe to explore innovations and technologies that can work to reduce carbon emissions and help to facilitate better resource efficiency.
In our digital age, datacentres are commonplace. However, in the winds of the climate crisis sweeping the globe, it is incumbent on the datacentre and colocation industry to minimise its environmental impact and maximise its energy efficiency.
Since 2007, when industry consortium The Green Grid first materialised, it has been clear that clean energy is the key. Unfortunately, concerns about prohibitive costs put the datacentre efforts on the back burner.
But today, a selection of forward-thinking companies in the industry have led the charge in embedding cost-competitive renewable energy supplies into the datacentre ecosystem. Amazon, for example, recently announced 71 new renewable energy projects across the globe. Locally, the company’s 10-megawatt (MW) solar plant, located in the Northern Cape province, supplies renewable power to its datacentres and supports economic opportunities for local businesses in the region.
As organisations face intermittent electricity supply, mounting electricity costs and pressure to conduct more sustainable operations, renewable energy should take centre stage as we fight to conserve our resources and economies. The promise of a net-zero future is in our sights. Luckily, we do not have to choose between acting on the energy crisis or the climate crisis - with renewable energy, we can do both.
Helping businesses overcome one of today’s greatest challenges
As its intersecting benefits for both the environment and economy are realised, the spotlight on clean energy has brightened. Businesses are seeking collaborations that underpin their sustainability, as well as financial goals and, are partnering with companies who use clean energy in their operations, or better yet, investing in their renewable energy procurement solutions. As a prevalent partner in the modern business landscape, this naturally includes data storage operators.
Key business challenges include the current energy crisis that manifests in load shedding as well as soaring energy costs. It is estimated that load shedding cost the economy between R60 – R120 billion in 2019 alone and the situation worsened in 2022 with over 100 days of load shedding experienced to date. If the country can increase the amount of energy coming from local renewable sources, the economy will become much more resilient.
Unlike fossil fuels, the sun and the wind are not subject to fluctuating costs - and despite their intermittent nature, once the assets are built to harness them there is a minimal recurring cost.
South Africa has abundant wind and solar resources available that are among the best in the world, yet less than 6% of electricity is generated through renewables today. The good news is that more businesses and industries are investing in renewable energy projects, not only to counter the challenges brought about by the energy crisis but to also enhance their sustainability and net-zero commitments.
Locally, Anglo American formed a renewable energy partnership and is developing a regional renewable energy ecosystem, which includes 600 MW of wind and solar projects set to generate three to five gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030.
Another example is Gold Fields, construction of its 50 MW solar plant at its South Deep mine in Gauteng, the second biggest gold mine in the world, has just been completed. The plant will help save the mine approximately R123 million in electricity costs and reduce its carbon footprint by about 110 000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
Companies investing in clean energy infrastructures, datacentres amongst them, enjoy predictable and consistently lower energy costs – which is usually a benefit they can pass on to their customers.
Therefore, the economic benefits of a renewable energy supply are as significant as the environmental ones. Unquestionably, embracing clean energy will strengthen all businesses, everywhere.
The steward our planet deserves
As a necessary partner for millions of businesses, datacentres must resolve to be the ally that their customers, and indeed the planet, need.
Years ago, despite enthusiasm for using renewables, existing procurement sources meant that datacentres just could not make it work. It was simply too expensive. Luckily, the efforts of determined operators who developed innovative procurement solutions have since made green energy cost-competitive and reliable.
There’s no reason anymore not to use it. If we make a collective, industry-wide drive to use 100% clean energy in all datacentres, the momentum will shift our energy supply to a greener grid overall and help to make renewables more accessible to everybody.
Using green energy in the world’s datacentres is only part of the puzzle though. The commitment to sustainability needs to be broad for every operator, including storage operators if we are to build the carbon-neutral industry we’re all aiming for.
We can do this by targeting an exponential decrease in Scope 1 and 2 emissions, for which a 25% reduction over five-year periods is certainly realistic; joining the Climate Group’s EV100 initiative and pledging to achieve fleet-wide electrification this decade; working with the Environmental Defence Fund to identify efficiencies and natural gas mitigation strategies to bring down heating costs and reduce carbon emissions; and building BREEAM design-certified facilities that mean operations are sustainably minded end-to-end.
In a world beset by complex challenges, our industry has the power to make real progress in some of the biggest. Organisations of every kind must recognise the opportunities before them to create change - datacentres are now able to access the resources that contribute to a sustainable future and what is more, enable their customers to do the same.
By weaving sustainable practices into all datacentre operations, we can allow businesses around the world to join the ‘clean energy revolution’. Not only will this help to create the change our planet so desperately needs, but it will also help to solve one of the largest economic threats to global businesses today.