Renewable energy will be the predominant power source for data centers, Nextracker CEO says

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Photoelectric modules at a solar farm in Hanstholm, Denmark. The solar panels are part of the renewable energy sources that power Apple’s European data center in Viborg. 
Christoph Dernbach | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

The surging power needs of artificial intelligence and data centers will be met primarily with renewable energy — not fossil fuels, according to the CEO of a leading solar company.

The natural gas industry believes it is best positioned to fulfill the surging power demand from data centers, arguing that renewables aren’t reliable enough to power these energy-hungry projects alone.

But Dan Shugar, the CEO of Nextracker, said the low cost and rapid deployment of solar as well as the ambitious climate goals of Big Tech will make renewable energy the preferred power choice for data centers.

Nextracker builds systems that allow solar panels to track the position of the sun, increasing the efficiency of renewable power plants. The company has beat Wall Street expectations for four straight quarters. Nextracker has a backlog of more than $4 billion and has shipped 100 gigawatts to date, twice the peak power load of California.

Nextracker shares are up 19% year to date and 37% over the past two months. About 80% of Wall Street analysts who cover the company rate its stock as buy or overweight, according to FactSet.

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Nextracker shares year to date

Shugar pointed to the more than 1,500 gigawatts of power generating projects requesting connection to the electric grid. Solar represents 70% of those projects, or 1,028 gigawatts, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy sponsored lab.

When including wind power, there are about 1,400 gigawatts of renewables seeking connection, which is more than the entire installed capacity of the U.S. electric grid. Gas projects, on the other hand, make up 79 gigawatts, or 5%, of the power in line for connection.

“There’ll be some gas, but we believe based especially on the data published by the DOE, the predominant energy source for these data centers is going to be renewable energy,” Shugar told CNBC in an interview Thursday.

“Our industry is just way ahead, no matter how you slice it,” the CEO said.

Big Tech wants clean energy

Goldman Sachs estimates that electricity demand from data centers will more than double to 8% of total U.S. power consumption by 2030.

Whereas older data centers may have been 100 to 200 megawatts in size, some of the “monster data centers” today may be as big as 1,000 megawatts, Shugar said. That is equivalent to the power produced by the average nuclear plant.

Goldman sees natural gas supplying 60% of the power demand growth from data centers and renewables supplying 40%, according to an April report from the investment bank.

Goldman estimated that carbon emissions from data centers could more than double by 2030 to about 220 million tons, or 0.6% of global energy emissions, assuming gas provides most of the power. Shugar pointed to the tech companies’ climate goals as catalyst for renewables demand.

“The clients that are developing these data centers, they have very serious sustainability goals and they don’t want their power coming from fossil,” Shugar said. “Basically renewable is lower cost than gas.”

Microsoft, for example, recently signed a massive renewable energy deal with Brookfield Asset Management. The companies described the agreement as the largest renewable energy deal signed between two corporate partners to date.

The backlog problem

Analysts, however, have pointed to the massive backlog of renewables in the connection queue as a challenge for the industry, which could result in increased utilization of existing gas assets for the time being to help power data centers and other projects.

“If you want to build a new renewable or any new project which connects to the grid, it will take at least two to three years to get all the interconnection approvals,” said Maheep Mandloi, director of clean energy research at Mizuho Securities.

Shugar said the backlog can be a problem for some projects, but once the interconnection process is done construction proceeds quickly. Fossil fuel plants have a longer development cycle than renewables, are harder to permit, and face the issue of variable fuel costs, he said.

“The point is there’s a massive, massive portfolio of projects all across the United States that’s already applied, put down interconnection deposits, has engineering studies advanced with utilities,” he said.

The CEO also pushed back against the argument that variable weather conditions, or intermittency, presents a problem for renewables. “I don’t buy it,” he said.

Most utility-scale solar projects Nextracker is involved with have battery storage associated with them, Shugar said. Batteries store energy for deployment when the sun is fading or wind conditions aren’t as strong.

Battery storage in the U.S. is expected to nearly double this year by 14.3 gigawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration. There are 1,000 gigawatts of storage waiting for connection right now. All told, there is a total of 2,480 gigawatts of solar, wind and storage line to be connected, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This is almost double the current capacity of the U.S. electric grid.

“The short story is we see data centers becoming an increasingly significant demand driver for renewables both from aggregate demand standpoint as well as an environmentally preferred source of energy,” Shugar said.

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