Data centres must do more to be sustainable

It is no secret that sustainability has been top of the agenda for the data centre industry for some time. There is an abundance of statistics on how much power the industry consumes; Carton3IT claims that data centres account for at least 12 per cent of UK electricity consumption or 41.11TWh a year. But whatever statistic is quoted, the power consumed by the industry is fast increasing. By 2025, it is estimated that every person in the developed world will have at least one “interaction” with a data centre every 18 seconds of their lifetime and data centres will consume 20 per cent of the world’s power supply. With the appetite for internet and smart technologies only increasing, it is vital that electricity use in data centres is reduced by implementing more efficient energy solutions.

“Not only is this the responsible thing to do, but we know that sustainability initiatives can actually provide competitive and financial advantages for data centre operators who get it right,” David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres says. “Since taking responsibility for the environmental impact has become a crucial business imperative, companies in all sectors want to do business with partners that are environmentally sound.

“However, achieving sustainability goals isn’t without its challenges.  The industry has both been blighted by accusations of green washing as well as making slow progress towards its green goals, despite many cloud and data centre providers committing to becoming climate neutral by 2030. To achieve short term goals, much of the data centre industry’s attention has been focused on making tweaks to existing processes, but it is now time that operators think more radically and make more widespread changes. Although sustainability initiatives are often seen to be expensive, they can lead to efficiencies and cost savings too.”

A more holistic approach to progress

There is a lot of misconception about what sustainability means. At the moment, for many, it is just about energy efficiency. But that is what data centre providers have always done – look to run a facility as efficiently as possible. A more holistic approach to sustainability is required looking at re-engineering other parts of data centre operations in the interests of sustainability, and that means operators need to consider their green credentials at every point of the data centre lifecycle – from design, to build, to operation. “Responsible sustainability means reducing a facility’s environment impact, whilst being efficient and having a positive impact on society,” Watkins adds. “It all starts at design and construction and providers must commit to using low carbon materials, to streamline the delivery process and minimise consumption of new resources.

“We must also look hard at our supply chain and demand the same rigorous green credentials from our partners and suppliers as our customers do from us. Indeed, whilst many data centre operators are focused on tackling Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions, even greater efficiencies can be realised by targeting Scope 3 emissions that are generated from partners and suppliers. Scope 3 emissions, as defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, are those generated indirectly by activities such as manufacturing, commuting and hardware disposal that occur in an organisation’s wider value chain. Activities that fall under the Scope 3 category are usually the largest source of emissions for companies, but also among the most difficult to track and quantify.”

Why sustainability must go hand in hand with being responsible

The data centre industry ‘three Rs’ – responsibility, reliability and resilience – should be central tenets of any provider’s long-term strategy. This means being committed to continuing to lead the market towards sustainability goals, but at the same time, ensuring that the highest level of performance is delivered to customers across the globe.

“The good news is that – if data centre operators are successful – then the ‘three R’s’ are fundamentally entwined; a sustainable data centre is also a reliable and resilient one,” Watkins continues. “A great example of this is in renewable energy use. Not only are they entirely more sustainable, but renewable energy sources are also now viewed as more reliable than fossil fuels – not least, because renewable energy is not reliant on a single source, but from several – such as wind, solar and hydro. So, doing the right thing is also doing the thing that makes best business sense.

“Another great example of the ‘three R’s’ working in tandem is in cooling – where newer, energy efficient methods of cooling – such as harnessing indirect adiabatic and evaporative cooling technology – are both more sustainable and can be more effective than older approaches.”

Proving green credentials

According to Watkins in the coming months years, data centre providers can expect to see customers examining their green credentials in increasing detail.  “As well as committing to being green, there is a fundamental imperative for data centre operators to “prove” that they are living up to their sustainability promises,” he adds. “One way providers can do this is to ensure they’re adhering to industry standards, such as BREEAM in construction and ISO 50001 for Energy Management when managing and maintaining a facility. It’s also important that operators commit to transparency with customers, prospects, and the wider industry – updating them regularly and thoroughly on their sustainability journey.

“And again, it’s time for operators to think more laterally than the “greening” of their existing operations. To be able to truly claim status as a “green” provider, operators must expand their aspirations towards tackling so-called Scope 3 emissions as well as what’s in their day-to-day purview.”

Being sustainable is not just the right thing to do – it is the make or break for success. Providers that guarantee a carbon-neutral service will come out on top whilst others will struggle in a competitive market.

“To achieve success, sustainability cannot be thought of as a standalone ambition,” Watkins concludes. “There is still so much more the data centre sector should be doing to minimise the environmental impact of its activities, beyond simply trying to lower the amount of energy it uses and the carbon emissions it generates. Sustainability must be intrinsically linked with business strategy across the areas of responsibility, reliability and resilience and operators must recognise that one of these important aspects simply cannot happen without the others. And, whilst big strides have been made, designing, developing and operating sustainable data centres is likely to remain one of the biggest challenges facing the industry in the months and years to come.”

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