Decarbonizing the energy grid is a global imperative in the race to mitigate climate change. Companies across all sectors are galvanized to go sustainable, setting big goals to reduce emissions and commit to clean power.
Every business has a unique sustainability strategy. Many organizations hire dedicated sustainability teams to interpret emission metrics and manage their company’s environmental performance.
Enter Iron Mountain.
Iron Mountain Data Centers is a leader in the race to decarbonize. Its data centers run on 100% renewable energy.
Chris Pennington, a 30-year vet of Iron Mountain, leads the firm’s sustainability initiatives. As Director of Energy and Sustainability, his role is to harness the resources, talent, and technology to cover the company’s annual consumption requirements.
From Molehill to Mountain
Iron Mountain began as a traditional document storage facility, storing assets and papers underground. As its clients’ information became increasingly digitized, the company’s size and carbon footprint expanded. Today, Iron Mountain is a global organization that includes 1,500 data facilities in 50 countries.
Energy is a primary element of its data center business.
“In essence, it’s kind of what we sell. Sure, we package it up in very secure, highly connected facilities with robust backup power systems, but at the end of the day we’re selling power,” says Pennington. Managing its carbon footprint has been a high priority since 2015.
Iron Mountain has various types of data centers, the primary one being walled facilities powered with robust systems and rich connectivity to the Internet. Customers move in and lease space within secure facilities.
Power is bought for the site and then distributed to customers internally, offering a far more economically efficient model than building their own data environments. In this way, Iron Mountain serves as the primary supply chain provider for its customers’ energy.
Moving Toward 24/7 CFE
Companies can work to reduce their carbon footprint from the energy they use in many ways. But first, they need to understand their own energy use and emissions. Energy audits quantify a company’s load and how energy is being sourced. By establishing a baseline, a company can then set targets for efficiency or clean energy adoption, and progress can be measured when evaluating the success of future steps taken to make operations more efficient or run on a larger share of clean energy.
Achieving emission targets also requires a system of accurately tracking energy data from supply to consumption. This function has been historically based on monthly utility data; however, today a range of forward-leaning companies are moving to track and monitor energy data on an hourly basis. The more data you collect and integrate, the easier it is to glean insights, make informed decisions and, in Iron Mountain’s case, get to closer 100% renewable energy, matched every hour of the day.
Building the sustainability program for the data center business is an evolving science. “100% renewable is a great start, but it’s not the end,” says Pennington. “There’s a lot more work to do.”
Until recently, the prevailing wisdom was for companies tally up their energy usage at the end of the year and purchase renewable energy certificates, or RECs, to offset their annual energy consumption. But depending on their characteristics, large-scale purchases of RECs often do little to actually reduce carbon emissions.
RECs provide an easy, though superficial, accounting of an organization’s annual carbon footprint. For example, a company can purchase a wind REC in Texas and apply it to their operation in New Jersey. Regional environmental conditions differ, and energy is sourced separately from where it is being consumed. RECs do little to displace fossil-based electricity or encourage investment in solar and wind power, and undermine corporate efforts to decarbonize.
The Future Lies in Granular Tracking
Companies with firm commitments to clean power will evolve away from the offset market to the specific matching of energy by time and location due to better results.
“There will be a preference for more efficient location-based accounting—what is the carbon impact of where your facility is located?” The market-based (e.g., RECs) accounting approach is only loosely connected to local-market consumption in terms of positive environmental impact.
24/7 carbon-free energy refers to total decarbonization or zero energy. In practice, it’s called 24/7 hourly load matching. It takes place when an organization runs on clean energy every hour, every day, at every location.
Specifically, 24/7 energy production moves from annual matching (purchased through RECS), to hourly, aligning both the time and location—meaning region of the grid—for both generation and consumption. It drives total decarbonization throughout the grid.
But Iron Mountain isn’t quite there.
“For us to get the clean energy we need hour by hour, every hour of the day, is going to take big advancements in energy storage and big advancements in the expansion of clean energy generation,” says Pennington.
“Getting from a 95% match to a 100% match would be prohibitively expensive,” he says. “The point is we need to know where we’re at, which today, depending on the market, might be as low as 60% or up to 95%. Then, we see where the unmatched hours are and strategically make incremental progress toward closing those gaps over time.”
But 24/7 hourly matching isn’t the only way to go, according to Pennington. If companies don’t have the resources or tools, they can find plenty of economical ways to begin their net-zero journey. “It is like an evolutionary journey. There are on-ramps that every company can adopt.”
“All businesses have this ability to make an impact in terms of their emissions beyond just buying certificates. Even if just buying certificates is where you start, you can build on it from there. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Going Clean for the Bottom Line
Businesses are working to curb carbon for reputational and economic reasons as much as environmental ones, with cost being a key motivator. For Iron Mountain, the “fuel” for solar and wind power is free, compared with coal or natural gas. “Our motivation for doing this isn’t only for environmental performance,” says Pennington. Carbon-free resources are the lowest-marginal-cost energy generator there are. “You know, the sun doesn’t send you a cost increase bill next month because solar got more expensive. So, it’s ultimately the path towards lower costs in the long term.”
Yet decarbonizing the power grid isn’t easy or inexpensive. Significant challenges come with transitioning to solar and wind. Despite progress made over the last twenty years, intermittent energy sources make it hard for grid operators to forecast supply and demand.
“When renewable power is supplying the grid, it helps to reduce the cost of power on the grid. Our challenge is that we just don’t have enough of it yet, and then we don’t always have the right kind of allocation of time. We have too much at some point in time and not enough on others.”
Significant investment in transmission and storage is needed before we can supplant fossil fuels at an even larger scale and meet net zero carbon goals.
“A lot of folks will say, oh, 24/7 power, that’s ridiculously expensive. You know, no company can afford to do that on their own. My comeback to that is this journey to 24/7 carbon-free energy is a different journey than the 100% renewable energy commitment that close to 400 companies have already made.”
(Pennington refers to the ease of purchasing RECs to offset the previous year’s annual load versus the investment in data management required of going 24/7 net zero.)
“Playing the long game is just in our DNA at Iron Mountain,” says Pennington. He’ll be the first to tell you decarbonizing the grid is a marathon, not a sprint, with many paths to the finish line. Like any good run, it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you keep moving forward.
To get to the full conversation with Chris, listen to his episode of The Decarbonization Race.