Striving for carbon neutrality: the sustainability state of play for data centres

Data centres can be broadly defined as the “main brains” of the internet. Its role is to process, store, and communicate the data behind the numerous information services we rely upon nowadays. Therefore, the industry has certainly not been immune to criticism when it comes to power consumption and electricity sources used in its operations.

On a global scale, large economies have recently declared their intention to reduce carbon footprint by using low-carbon energy sources such as nuclear and hydro, and adding renewable sources, primarily wind, solar and even tidal power.

The UK government has set an ambitious emissions target of net-zero by 2050, which made it the first G7 country to do so. Over the coming months and years, different sectors and businesses will be working to define a clear strategy for reducing emissions and achieve this target, so where are the UK data centres currently in this sustainability roadmap? Is the industry on track, and what more still needs to be done?

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A collective effort

While more IT decision-makers turn to the benefits of data centre storage for key information over on-premise server rooms, sustainability is increasingly at the forefront of their minds when choosing a provider. In fact, research conducted by Telehouse found that 86% of IT decision-makers say sustainability is important to their decision-making processes while a further 82% say it is crucial that their organisation uses data centres powered by renewable energy.

The increased discussion around corporate and social responsibility is leading IT decision-makers to make key procurement decisions based on environmental and sustainability criteria. This is reflected in almost two-thirds (62%) of organisations that now monitor the footprint of their IT operations. These markets have evidently become conscious of being involved with businesses which have sustainability at the top of the agenda.

The industry has made strides over the last 15 years or so to ensure it is meeting consumer demands and driving its green initiatives. The most sustainable data centres are being built on commitments to innovative green and renewable strategies – including green power, water reclamation, zero water cooling systems, recycling and waste management, and more. They do not contain obsolete systems, such as inactive or underused servers, and take advantage of newer, more efficient technologies. By prioritising sustainability, the UK data centre industry can make significant improvements and innovations in its operations, process reliability which enable efficiencies gains that ultimately lead to cost savings for both operator and customer.

But it is not just consumer demand that has proven to be a driving factor for the data centre industry. Emma Fryer, associate director at TechUK, commented: “Operators have already developed their own ambitious corporate CSR and carbon reduction commitments and larger providers have signed up to Science Based Targets with others following suit. But purchasing certified renewable power is only the first step. Data centre operators are driving additional renewable generation through power purchase agreements and in the longer term are perfectly positioned to be anchor customers of green hydrogen and battery storage technologies and in time facilitate a more dynamic, distributed grid as prosumers in a more dynamic energy market.”

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Sustainability from the ground up

While some progress has been made, there are still challenges concerning power consumption and sources. Approximately 59 megawatts of power came online in 2020 to support data centre operations in London, and this is set to soar to 177 megawatts in 2022. Data centres must handle the increasing demand for digital data, driven by digitisation of business, government services and consumer demand, plus the migration and consolidation of distributed and in-house IT functions to third party facilities. While this improves efficiency, it shifts energy demand from where it was hidden within businesses to data centres where it is reported and transparent.

Additionally, the UK energy infrastructure was originally built and based on centralised fossil fuel generation, therefore as the UK is transitioning to a system to meet carbon targets and changing demands, more complex and new model services have had to be introduced. Data centres are therefore increasingly using renewable sources of energy and adhering to international ISO standards in Environment and Energy management (ISO 14001:2015 & ISO 50001:2018), while voluntarily participating in initiatives such as “Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact” and the EU’s Code of Conduct for DCs.

To continue to address these challenges, a data-driven approach, implementation of various efficient energy technologies and digital solutions will play a critical role in accomplishing the goal of net zero.
Key focus areas over the next decade will be sustainability in the design for new facilities and upgrading legacy data centres. A lot of useful data has been accrued over the last decade or so from existing operations and wider expertise in the industry which has provided clarity on how a load grows within a building. This allows operators to ensure that the infrastructure is designed and then tailored to those growth patterns. This work has been instrumental in facilitating the development and deployment of more efficient UPS technology and better cooling systems, and ultimately means that each new data centre will be efficient from day one despite being designed for a 30-year lifespan.

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Cause for optimism

While there is still much work to be done, defining a practical roadmap to net-zero data centres will play a crucial part in achieving the ambition of being net-zero by 2050. Those designing, building, and operating data centres need to take into account the technical considerations across a range of on-site power generation and energy storage solutions that practically address greenhouse emissions abatement, evolving regulatory requirements and end-user performance requirements, at the same time taking full advantage of renewable energy sources and sustainable technologies.

Over the coming years, the industry needs to make a collective effort to demonstrate its commitment to support the wider effort to reduce carbon emissions and ensure operational viability with long-term sustainability playing a vital role in addressing climate change. It is now the time to do more in a collaborative approach and be a support pillar of the green digital economy.

Written by Carolina Uribe, energy and environmental manager at Telehouse.

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