Are US sustainability ambitions blighted by a distaste for regulations?

As the data centre sector increases its focus on becoming more environmentally sustainable, regulators still have a part to play — the question is to what extent? An issue that the Uptime Institute recently focussed on.

In a recent Uptime Institute survey of nearly 400 data centre operators and suppliers worldwide, a strong majority would favour regulators playing a greater role in improving the overall sustainability of data centres — except for respondents in North America.

Globally, more than three in five respondents favour greater reliance on statutory regulation. The strongest support (75 per cent of respondents) is in Europe and APAC (Asia-Pacific, including China). However, in the US and Canada, fewer than half (41 per cent) want more government involvement, with most respondents saying the government plays an adequate role, or should play a lesser role, in sustainability regulation.

“Our survey did not delve into attitudes toward governments’ role in this area, but there are a few possible explanations for North America being an outlier,” Jacqueline Davis, research analyst, Uptime Institute, says. “Globally, there is often a technical knowledge gap between industry professionals and government policymakers. As North America is the largest mature data centre market, this gap may be more pronounced, fuelling a general distrust by the sector toward legislators’ ability to create effective, meaningful laws.”

Indeed, North American participants have a lower opinion of their regulators’ understanding of data centre matters compared with the rest of the world: four of ten respondents rate their regulators as not at all informed or knowledgeable.

When regulations go wrong

Back in 2019, the Dutch data centre industry was taken by surprise: a sudden moratorium from the Amsterdam and Haarlemmermeer municipality was announced. The construction of new data centres within their borders was halted, pending new to-be-established policies. In close collaboration with the industry, represented by the Dutch Data Centre Association (DDA), new policies were designed, presented, and implemented in 2020.

The newly designed policies allowed the municipalities to bring sustainable growth to the sector. New projects may only be developed in designated areas, use multiple floors if possible, and meet strict criteria in terms of efficiency and sustainability, such as a PUE of 1.2 for new builds.

Davis points to this as an example of a regulation that was poorly thought out and failed to achieve its aim. “There are, however, cases of non-US legislation lacking technical merit, such as Amsterdam’s annual power usage effectiveness (PUE) limit of 1.2 for new data centre builds,” she adds. “Although low PUEs are important, this legislation lacks nuance and does not factor in capacity changes — PUE tends to escalate at low utilisation levels (for example, below 20 per cent of the facility’s rated capacity).

“The requirement for a low PUE could incentivise behaviour that is counterproductive to the regulation’s intent, such as enterprises and service providers moving (and leased operators commercially attracting) power-hungry applications to achieve a certain PUE number to avoid penalties. Also, these rules do not consider the energy efficiency of the IT.”

Even if we accept the PUE’s limitations, the metric will likely have low utility as a regulatory dial in the future. Once a feature of state-of-the-art data centres, strong PUEs are now straightforward to achieve. Also, major technical shifts, such as the use of direct liquid cooling, may render PUE inconsequential.

A bar set too low

The European Green Deal is a set of policy initiatives by the European Commission with the overarching aim of making the European Union (EU) climate neutral in 2050. It is not exclusively aimed at the digital infrastructure market and has goals extending to many different sectors, including construction, biodiversity, energy, transport, and food. According to Davis in this instance the targets set are not strict enough for the data centre sector.

“The issue is not simply one of over-regulation: there are instances of legislators setting the bar too low,” David continues. “The industry-led Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact is a case in point. Formed in the EU, this self-regulatory agreement has signatory data centre operators working toward reaching net-zero emissions by 2030 — 20 years earlier than the goal set by the EU government (as part of its European Green Deal).”

North American reticence

Why, then, are most operators (outside of North America) receptive to more legislation? Perhaps it is because regulation, in some cases, benefitted the industry’s sustainability profile and received global attention as a reliable framework.

“Although Amsterdam’s one-year ban on new data centre construction in 2019 was largely met with disapproval from the sector, it resulted in policies (including the PUE mandate) offering a clearer path toward sustainable development,” Davis explains. “The new regulations for Amsterdam include designated campuses for new facility construction within the municipal zones, along with standards for improving the efficient use of land and raw materials. There are also regulations relating to heat re-use and multistorey designs, where possible — all of which force the sector to explore efficient, sustainable siting, design, and operational choices.

“Amsterdam’s temporary ban on new facilities provided a global case study for the impacts of extreme regulatory measures on the industry’s environmental footprint. Similar growth-control measures are planned in Frankfurt, Germany, and Singapore. If they realize benefits like those experienced in Amsterdam, support for regulation may increase in these regions.

“In the grand scheme of sustainability and local impact, regulatory upgrades may have minimal effect. A clear policy, however, builds business confidence by removing uncertainty — which is a boon for data centre developments with an investment horizon beyond 10 years. As for North America’s overall resistance, it could simply be that the US is more averse to government regulation, in general, than elsewhere in the world.”

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