Are build-to-suit hyperscale data centres the future of sustainable energy?

Hyperscale data centres

Jonathan Gibbs, SVP of design and construction, North America, Prime Data Centers explains how hyperscale data centres are overcoming sustainable resiliency

Hyperscale data centre users are some of the most sophisticated companies in the world in terms of proactively measuring, tracking, and improving their sustainability efforts. Since they also represent most of the wholesale data centre leasing volume worldwide, data centre developers are under increasing pressure to enable hyperscalers and enterprises to build and operate more sustainable data centres.

Data centre developers and their contractor partners must now incorporate sustainability and resilience into every step of design and development, from site selection to temperature and humidity control to power consumption and grid services. This drive toward increasing sustainability and fighting climate change has forced innovation across every phase of data centre design, development, operation, and even decommissioning.

The challenges of innovation

 As innovation continues to take centre stage, it is not always shining bright. Innovation comes with many obstacles, and the curtain has just opened. There are many acts left as this all plays out. For instance, the pandemic created a paradigm shift in communication and technology – driven by an acceleration of convenience and demand.  The heightened implementation of cloud services and digitisation, with the widespread rollout of new technology such as 5G, is expected to create an even bigger surge in future energy. According to the International Energy Association (IEA), global internet traffic grew by over 40 per cent in 2020, driven by increased video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming and social networking.

As digital transformation is increasing dramatically, data centres are being required to quickly expand infrastructure capacity. What normally would take years to complete, data centre operators are constructing in months.

While this may seem like a win-win for data centres, it also has put a strain on meeting and exceeding the guidelines set by government, investors, clients, and other stakeholders to adhere to strict sustainability protocols. The good news is that hyperscale data centres lead the charge in improving sustainability by leveraging a build-to-suit model. A build-to-suit data centre can be tailored and expertly designed to the specifications needed without many of the limitations that come with cookie-cutter data centre designs. This provides greater flexibility when it comes to energy use.

However, building a highly efficient data centre prepared to stimulate renewable energy and reduce the carbon footprint can have its challenges. One of those challenges is what we call sustainable resiliency. In summary, it is how to improve sustainability without sacrificing resiliency. For example, most data centre backup power today runs on diesel, a fossil fuel. The industry is actively looking for a reliable backup power solution that is not fossil fuel. Batteries of one kind or another may be a future solution, but they are not ready for mainstream data centre use quite yet. 

One recent Microsoft data centre modernization is utilising a microgrid to use renewable natural gas (RNG) instead of diesel fuel to power data centre emergency backup generators. The results of the advances of moving off diesel fuel for data centre operations may take a decade or more to confirm its success. In the meantime, a build-to-suit hyperscale data centre is the tried and tested solution to customise the technology needed for resiliency and sustainability.

Solutions for improving energy efficiency

In addition to reducing or eliminating the need for fossil fuels, data centre developers and operators are trying to reduce water usage, optimise temperature and humidity controls, and more effectively reuse and recycle IT equipment. One of the most important focus areas is improving energy efficiency. Updating and consolidating servers, better management of data centre airflow, finding more effective cooling solutions, improving HVAC systems, and implementing carbon tracking solutions are some of the areas where significant gains in conservation can be made.

An initial solution can be to update and consolidate servers. By doing so, data centres can ultimately reduce the amount of electricity used to power their systems and which, in return, reduces their overall carbon footprint. According to Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC, one study suggests that storage and servers together account for over 50 per cent of the energy consumed in a data centre. Fewer servers can also lead to enhanced data centre security by requiring less monitoring.

The study also notes that cooling equipment for data centres equates to between 30 to 60 percent of utility expenses. To increase energy efficiency, data centres can apply airflow management solutions, enabling the data centre to increase the baseline temperature. This authorizes the cooling units to shut off and preserve overall energy utilisation. Data centres can also invest in advanced energy savings that can be achieved through introducing cooling systems that effectively drop the utility loads and improve HVAC systems.

For continuous improvement, data centres can implement carbon tracking solutions. By tracking the data centre’s operations, including equipment used, energy usage can be gauged, providing a better assessment of its carbon footprint, and detecting recycling opportunities.

The bottom line to a sustainable future

The data centre industry has a rich history of technological development in the name of a more efficient, sustainable future. It can ultimately improve the bottom line when done correctly. With energy consumption set to grow at an unprecedented rate and stricter, much-needed carbon footprint regulations on the horizon, our most critical years still lie ahead. We need to continue that proud legacy by doubling down on our efforts.

It begins with having a comprehensive understanding of your needs, plan of action, and position in the market. Build-to-suit data centres for hyperscalers provide a customized solution that can be tailored to your specific goals. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. To lead the market in resiliency, a data centre must differentiate itself from the competition. With the growing demand for greener data, it is becoming a deciding factor for many customers to partner with a solution that caters to the global impact it has on the future of sustainable energy.

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