Lenovo’s ‘Carbon-Negative’ Strategy for Customers Drives a Sustainable Energy Future

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The climate crisis – and, specifically, how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by power-hungry data centers – was a top-of-mind issue at Lenovo’s recent Winterstock virtual event. The company has a lot to say on the issue in part because its strategy for addressing power usage has already cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90 percent in the last decade.

Electricity producing power plants are the biggest single source of CO2 in the world, the energy consumption of data centers is one of the fastest growing aspects of the problem. They use on average 50x more power per square foot than a typical building, and while they consume 2 percent of overall energy in the U.S. their usage is growing at an alarming 12 percent annual rate.

Demand for more IT continues to rise, and almost every component of future systems will consume more energy, from DIMMs to NICs to CPUs & GPUs.  Lenovo has pledged to drive a more environmentally friendly and sustainable path forward. Taken together, the company is fighting climate change in three dimensions:

  • By incorporating power saving components and technology, such as liquid cooling, in Lenovo HPC-class servers, advancing their capabilities for scientists studying climate change and developing strategies to address it.
  • By developing easy, customer-friendly ways to offset the total carbon footprint of every Lenovo product, from manufacture to the first power-up to disposal.
  • By cutting CO2 from Lenovo operations, instituting energy conservation measures in the company’s office buildings and manufacturing facilities.

Scott Tease, Lenovo’s Vice President and General Manager of HPC and AI, is at the forefront of Lenovo’s carbon cutting effort and – in case you missed his session at Winterstock – he delivered a major update on the company’s energy strategy.

“Today, we’d like to challenge the status quo, to focus on how the industry must reimagine the future of the data center in a more sustainable environment,” Tease said.  “We must continue to push the boundaries of availability, flexibility, performance and sustainability.”

U.S. power sources; Scott Tease at left

Working with Lenovo’s customers, he said the company’s goals are to deliver servers with greater performance that consume less power, to affordably move to low-emission power sources and to develop innovative means of recycling the waste heat/energy from Lenovo systems. Tease said, “Lenovo is helping our customers get on a path to greater efficiency with a goal of having carbon neutral or even carbon negative IT operations.”

Proceeding toward that goal, of course, begins with understanding and quantifying the problem. Tease divides server and data center power usage into two categories: the first is power consumption related directly to server processing – i.e., to the benefits of servers storing, moving and processing data both alone and in clusters, and networking within and among other clusters; the second is the overhead of removing heat so that servers and data centers can operate.

For a single 1U server operating on its own, only about 10 percent of its power is used by cooling fans. The cooling problem grows exponentially as racks of servers are clustered together.

“But take this 1U system, stack it inside of a typical rack with 36 of its friends, along with networking, now we have a pretty significant amount of power used to run that rack: 25 kilowatts to be specific, of which 2.2 kilowatts is taken just for the fans,” said Tease. “That’s a lot of power.  But the problem is that the cost per cooling overhead doesn’t stop at the rack, we need the data center to reject or handle all that heat coming from the back of the rack. Even in a relatively efficient data center, this can account for an additional 40 percent or more power to run air conditioning and to move massive amounts of air with air handlers. So that 23 kilowatt that’s running the processors and memory your business depends on could easily consumed 35 kilowatts operationally, when you take into consideration the entire picture with the data center.”

In response, Lenovo has adopted a comprehensive, long-term strategy that attacks the problem on multiple fronts. It starts with an element directly within its control: the technology built into Lenovo servers. These include energy management software that measures, manages and optimizes power usage; the adoption of energy efficient components, including titanium power supplies, idle power state controls and low energy-loss materials; and for heat mitigation, Lenovo servers utilize liquid-to-air exchangers, thermal transfer modules and liquid cooling, including rear door heat exchangers and direct liquid cooled systems.

Lenovo was an early and aggressive adopter of server liquid cooling. Its Neptune™ liquid cooling technology offers a three-pronged approach to server cooling: System Level, with Direct Water Cooling  (DWC) warm-water cooling; ; Thermal Transfer Module (TTM) and other technologies that utilize liquid in some way to remove heat,  Rack level with Rear-Door Heat Exchanger (RDHX) removes heat from a rack of air-cooled components like servers, storage and networking, and finally the Software level with Energy Aware Runtime (EAR), which operates at the chassis level and can throttle the CPUs running a job based on preset parameters, to ensure either optimum performance or optimal efficiency.

Looking ahead, Lenovo is developing ways to recycle data center heat, treating it not as a waste product but as a resource – to heat buildings, to heat swimming pools, possibly even to be piped under roads and walkways to melt snow and ice.

Next, Lenovo is developing easy ways for customers to offset the carbon emissions of the Lenovo products they buy.  For example, ThinkPad Customers can simply add a “Carbon Offset” feature to their order, and Lenovo will contribute to organizations that plant trees and do other offsetting activities.  This “Carbon Offset” feature will be extended throughout the entire Lenovo portfolio, including servers.

Finally, Lenovo is reducing the carbon output of its own facilities and has amassed an impressive record in this regard.

“Lenovo has taken this challenge to heart, reducing our carbon emissions by 92 percent since 2010,” said Tease, “and we’ve signed up to drive 50 percent further reductions,” approved by the Science Based Targets (SBTi), an organization that drives climate action in the private sector by enabling companies to set science-based emissions reduction targets.

Lenovo also has been named to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Top 30 Tech & Telecom Green Power Partner list for operating power initiatives across its facilities. The company has attained LEED Gold certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a certification program run by the U.S. Green Building Council) for the use of conservation devices, such as low energy lighting with motion detectors in office buildings.

In addition, Tease said Lenovo manufacturing facility in Whitsett, NC, “is literally covered with solar energy panels generating renewable energy.”

These measures, with more to come, comprise Lenovo’s step-by-step strategy for a sustainable energy future point all pointing toward the company’s ambitious, long-term environmental objective.

“So far, we’ve talked about how to get to carbon neutrality,” he said, “and I think this is within reach. But I’d like to challenge ourselves to go beyond neutral to a state where we’re actually carbon negative, displacing more CO2 than we actually consume. Here’s where step by step we can make incremental improvements long term, the ultimate goal is to rethink our power source input and increasingly adopt renewable energy sources, our IT system design, and data center design. That may sound too good to be true. But we want to share our carbon negative vision and challenge ourselves to get there together.”