Data centers are one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world and are a major contributor to global emissions. To reduce those emissions, many companies are turning to renewable sources of power, including wind, solar and biofuels, as well as building facilities closer to existing nuclear plants. But Microsoft appears to be preparing to take things a step further: The company recently posted a job opening for a “principal program manager for nuclear technology,” indicating that it may be looking into using small modular reactors (SMR) to power future data centers. These SMRs, developed by companies like NuScale, are designed to be smaller than current nuclear power plants and, as TechPowerUp explains, can be built right on the site of a data center. That adjacency mitigates problems that could be caused by transmission lines over long distances and makes it easier to use clean power.
If Microsoft does indeed begin using SMRs to power its data centers, it would be in good company: Google’s parent company Alphabet has been working with a similar technology for years and last year became the first major company to match 100% of its data center electricity use with renewable energy. It’s a significant milestone, but the company still needs to make progress in other areas.
For instance, the virtual tour of a typical Microsoft datacenter that the company offers visitors via its website shows that it consumes tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel for backup generators, which are needed in case the electric grid fails or there’s a natural disaster. With recent advances in fuel cells, however, those backup generators now emit less than a lawn mower’s worth of carbon dioxide per hour. The company has already begun to make changes in that regard by entering financial agreements with power companies for renewable energy and locating datacenters near hydroelectric dams.
But, as the demand for data centers continues to grow, it’s likely that companies like Microsoft will have to shift further toward SMRs if they want to continue making their operations more sustainable. It will be a challenge to do so, however. In an early 2020 blog post, the director of Microsoft’s Nuclear Technologies Engineering said that a project to test SMRs at a data center would be “not without risk,” adding that it could take years for the program to reach its full potential.