How data centres can help businesses be more sustainable

The data centre industry is notoriously energy hungry – due to the service they provide running and housing much of the digital infrastructure – data centres use a huge amount of power and can generate a vast amount of heat. Data centre power consumption alone amounts to around 416 terawatts, or 3% of all electricity generated on the planet. While there’s much good work already being done to make data centres more sustainable, it’s clear that some providers in the industry need to take more action and accelerate their search for new ways to minimise carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. And the pressure is on — the EU Commission recently noted that data centres “can and should become climate neutral by 2030”.

When it comes to integrating sustainability into their facilities, data centre providers have a unique set of challenges on their hands. While data centres don’t generate waste or products like other industries, this high energy- and water-use sector faces unprecedented demand for sustainability measures, clean energy and efficient facilities.

The providers themselves are keen to be as sustainable as possible, and customers, too, are demanding it. Traditionally, the key question was whether facilities are reliable and secure. Now, customers want to know that the data centres they use are sustainable, and that they support their own sustainability goals; 62% of Oracle’s data centre power is certified as renewable; Google has been using 100% renewable energy since 2017; AWS has committed to be using 80% renewable energy by 2024, 100% by 2030 (potentially as early as 2025) and to be net zero carbon by 2040; Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012, and is committed to being carbon negative by 2030, and to remove all historical carbon generated since the company started in 1970’s, by 2050.

With a “green deadline” in sight, how can data centre providers meet ambitious sustainability targets while meeting customer needs? The most forward-looking providers are committed to delivering a “cradle to grave” green strategy, where environmental ambitions are built into every step of data centre construction and maintenance. Indeed, it’s here where some providers are really leading by example; some have been, and continue to strive for continual improvement and reduction of their carbon footprints for years in comparison to legacy facilities that need to be updated significantly if they are to become cleaner, more sustainable facilities.

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Renewable energy

The first step for many providers is in a move away from fossil fuels. Data centres are particularly well placed to benefit from renewable energy sources due to their stable power consumption. Indeed, some providers are already achieving 100% zero-carbon energy in their buildings, resulting in lower emissions of carbon and other types of pollution, as well as cost efficiencies. Google is another trailblazer in this area – its large-scale procurement of wind and solar power has made Google the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy.

Renewable energy is, and will continue to be, an important part of the strategy to reduce carbon
emissions, but different global locations will benefit from different approaches, and it’s important to move beyond a straight ‘we must embrace renewables’ message, to one that recognises the nuances of location. For example, in the Middle East and parts of the US, solar energy is much more prevalent than in the Nordics. Other locations have different options: a good example is at a campus on the southwestern tip of Iceland, which runs almost entirely on geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Plant management

Data centre managers are looking at plant management best practices to improve efficiencies, including the implementation of evaporative cooling, indirect heat exchangers, rainwater harvesting and air handling units. These methods not only improve the operational sustainability of the data centre, but also reduce the site’s dependence upon local distribution networks.

There are plenty of examples of operators implementing innovative work. Facebook invented a system called Autoscale in 2014 that reduces the number of servers that need to be on during low-traffic hours, leading to power savings of around 15%, for example. In addition, some companies have turned to AI to optimise their internal cooling systems by matching weather and operational conditions, reducing cooling energy usage by almost 40%.

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Return on investment

There is still a lot for providers to do, but there is a significant advantage for those whose data centre facilities commit to long term sustainability initiatives.

Perhaps the clearest payback is in cost savings. Green no longer means expensive: thanks to tax breaks, incentives and diminishing costs for renewable energy all mean that it’s more affordable and even cost-effective to be green. But there are more than just cost savings at stake. In the short term, data centre providers who can demonstrate a robust sustainability strategy can enjoy immediate wins. They can deliver on government mandates to become greener, and also meet the sustainability demands of their customers. A lot more data can be processed in an energy efficient way within a large computer base than on smaller servers in a company’s own building.

There is some great progress being made, and the initiatives many providers are undertaking are paying dividends. But, it’s important to remember that not all data centres are the same – and that some are significantly greener than others, despite all claiming some green-credentials. Customers need to examine the detail beneath the ‘green’ messaging to ensure that they are truly engaging with providers who can support their sustainability goals for today and in the future.

Written by David Watkins, solutions director at VIRTUS Data Centres

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