Interview: Mark Garner, vice president secure power division, Schneider Electric

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We spoke to Marc Garner, about the data centre sectors growing sustainability agenda and how that will shape the future landscape.

There seems to be a growing awareness of the necessity for sustainability within the data centre sector. Is this reflected in your conversations with your customers?

The data centre sector is interesting. You can question whether the pressure for sustainability is anywhere near enough, but it is driven by the expectations from customers and governance. There is more visibility around sustainability in our day-to-day practices as well as what we do on a personal or business level. But more and more we are seeing this ambition come from our customers directly.

If you take Schneider Electric as a prime example, we have made some ambitious statements to the market around what we want to do as a business. Sustainability for us extends across our technology, our value chain, the suppliers that supply into us, and our own business models. It is a culture across the whole of the business that then filters into the supply chain and the customers that we subsequently sell to and work with on a day-to-day basis. That is becoming part and parcel of what the colocation and the multi-tenant data centres must deal with on a day-to-day basis. Sustainability and a reduction in their carbon footprint year on year is part of what they are expected to offer to their customers.

 

There may be growing awareness, but does this translate into actions?

Ultimately, a data centre is there to provide resilience and security of supply and that is always going to be the primary goal of what the data centre must deliver on. I think the voice of sustainability is becoming much more prevalent, and there are excellent examples from the likes of Equinix and Iron Mountain of what they have done to adopt sustainable practices and the CO2 emissions.

 

Your research last year with 451 Research showed that operators view sustainability as a competitive differentiator and cite customer expectations as a major driver yet only 43 per cent have sustainability initiatives. That does not seem to tally.

Sustainability is going to be part of the management structure going forward. The customer base is contractually asking for sustainability commitments. Some of it is that tick box that they have got to be able to represent a sustainability programme, but more so it is comes down to winning business. If they have a clear sustainability programme that is working towards a goal and improvement for their customers, then they will be more successful winning business going forward.

 

What is changing when it comes to sustainability thinking and strategy in the industry?

It is that new way of thinking on how we embed sustainability in the design, build and operation of our data centres. How do we get it on a level platform with resilience in terms of importance? That comes down to a new way of approaching sustainability as an end user and an industry. If you know what success looks like for you, that is part of where you have got to get to. Is it achievable, can you get there, can you set some targets within your business that everyone starts to buy into? If you can get those two points, then you can start to move into the process of deploying those programmes to engage sustainability at the heart of your operations.

The simple things around energy efficiency such as lighting and after that various other things within an infrastructure can start to come through within the programme. But then it must be about sustaining those results continually, talking about them within your business or with your customers. The more you say and the more you repeat it, the more you are going to get traction and it starts to drive this sustainability culture. It is a mindset change for us as an industry, for the suppliers operators, and for our customers.

 

Much of the focus is on improving energy efficiency and operating performance but much of the carbon is already built in before a data centre starts operating.

There are a huge number of data centres built every year in the UK and Ireland, but you have got to look broader across the globe. There is a huge amount of construction around data centres and is sustainability at the very heart of that? When we talk about that we mean are you designing energy efficiency into the data centre for its operation? But if you strip it back a step before that, you have got to think about the options around prefabrication. If you can build a data centre off site where it is much easier to manage your wastage around the construction piece for the build process. There is a huge amount of sustainability benefit that comes on the back of things like prefab builds. It is looking broader than just efficiency in operation.

 

Is sustainability the main driver for prefabricated data centres?

Some of it is but a lot is around speed to market and helping our customers get to market quicker. But more and more of it is built into the sustainability discussion and that quality of what you get delivered. The point I was making earlier around the value chain and those multiple contractors or different parties that must engage in a construction. If you have got that centralised in one place, with less people travelling and more local resource to be able to support and deliver it, there is an embedded carbon footprint that starts to really filter through.

 

Where is the current sustainability focus for data centre operators?

It is interesting because we see huge advances in technology every year and from Schneider Electric’s perspective, everything we bring to market has a sustainability element to it, whether it is in its operation, or how we build in a more sustainable manner.

Lithium Ion is a great example of an energy efficient technology, which is probably under adopted within our industry. Another is SF6 free switch gear, which we introduced last year and is hugely beneficial to the environment, reducing gases within the equipment that we bring to market. These aspects and fundamental improvements in the embedded carbon footprint, plus the products, are directly passed on to the customer, whether that is in operation, or just in terms of the product itself and how efficient it is.

 

How does the development of renewable energy, energy storage or even data centres as part of a microgrid impact of what you do in your business?

It is an interesting challenge going forward, and the data centre environment is a microgrid. If you go back ten to 15 years, there was a centralised methodology for procuring energy into your building or infrastructure. This has now changed. We have data center operators who have their own energy systems on site. Things such as local battery storage, distributed generation, and wind farms, which all create their own challenges.

You need to then start to build in the requirements of these microgrids into your solutions. At peak times, this grid automation allows you to shed loads if you need to utilise more renewable energy when it is required, or into a more resilient energy at certain times within the operation of the data centre. There is technology that allows you to look at the server infrastructure and be able to shed load from servers when they are under optimised in terms of their usage and move it into another under optimised server, so you only have one cell running. This can really add huge amounts of value to the green agenda.

 

An important part of managing sustainability in a data centre is visibility. How to you help operators gain a common view of their operations?

Without visibility of what is happening, the software and the connect ability of our assets and our customers assets, you are really playing in the dark. If you do not have that ability to monitor where you are and make sure that there is that behavioural buy-in and change within the industry, then it is difficult to do. You have got to have that single pane of glass view where everyone can see what good looks like and what bad looks like and how to react when you are in an unfavourable position.

This concept is something we are moving towards more than using now. That is highlighted in our investment as an organisation over the past five years. The acquisition of Aveva is an interesting example, because with their solution you can take third-party infrastructure and the data that is available within a building and generate a single pane of glass that allows you to understand the full end to end operation of your building and make some intelligent sharp decisions with agility. I think that is one of the key things that comes with this that if you can see it, and make decisions quickly around it, it helps to show the benefits.

 

What do you think the future looks like?

Time to market is certainly one of the key points and that is certainly not going to go away. The speed to market element will almost create opportunities for offsite construction prefabrication to be able to facilitate this which will have that knock on effect around embedded carbon footprints and sustainability.

Regarding the future, whether this is hopeful or realistic I do not know, but I think by 2030 we will have a sustainability executive sat on the executive board within the customer base, and it will be part of their decision-making process in terms of contract award. They will decide how and where they build, renewables, and the distributed grid. We see it in our own policies across the UK and Ireland now that the government focus around sustainability is huge and that should continue to drive the sustainability behaviour across our industry. It is about giving sustainability a bigger voice and a bigger presence within the decision-making process and as that happens, it will always.

 

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