Confronting the spectre of inconvenient data centre sustainability realities

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The data centre industry has long been considered a pioneer in developing new ways to increase energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy as a share of the power it consumes. Despite this, the ever-increasing demand for digital infrastructure means that data centre power consumption will continue to increase.

Chris Brown, chief technical officer at the Uptime Institute, says that as technology has improved, our demands from the technology have increased. This has increased the pressure on the industry to deliver what their customers require, leading to bigger facilities which consume increasing amounts of power.

“The industry is focused on finding solutions to deliver power and cooling to the IPS in the most efficient way, based on how many motors are running at any one time – the more motors that are running at a reduced load consumes less power than fewer motors running at maximum capacity, for example,” comments Brown. “They are also focusing on the inlet server temperatures to drive up the efficiency of cooling systems.”

“Historically, IT groups have not looked at their server utilisation, and instead were much more concerned with the facility side of things because that is where the power bill was usually associated.”

Tools have become available that are now allowing operators to become more aware of how loaded their servers are, and the industry is beginning to work towards a happy medium between how well utilised equipment is and leaving room for redundancy. Nevertheless, power consumption will continue to rise no matter how many efficiency measures are put in to place.

The issue of data centre location

Another issue is data centre location. There are many reasons which operators decide to set up a data centre in a particular location, dependent on network latency, data integrity, and security laws among many others. While some of these locations are well placed to take advantage of local conditions to improve sustainability – such as in Scandinavia, which has a higher percentage of energy from renewable sources, and which has a much cooler than average climate that negates the need for huge cooling systems which use a lot of power – it is still necessary to locate data centres in less-than-optimal areas of the world.

“Some data centres have to be located in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in places that, based on climate and the amount of energy on the grid, which is gained from burning fossil fuels, is not as attractive a proposition,” adds Brown.

“No matter how sustainable an operator would like to be, or how green they want to be, there are always going to be certain limitations to reaching peak efficiency or sustainability.”

Legacy data centres and embodied carbon

Brown also highlights another major concern. Many data centres are older – often called ‘legacy’ data centres – and were designed with different technology and without energy efficiency in mind. Without huge investment, legacy data centres can only achieve a certain level of sustainability, which is vastly inferior to their newer competitors.

“Some of those are being retrofit, but the larger players are moving out of those data centres and building new ones that are much more sustainable,” observes Brown. “Those that remain in their legacy centre will have to find a way to focus on energy efficiency within the restrictions they have and operate as efficiently and sustainably as possible.”

Legacy data centres also contain huge amounts of embodied carbon – the combined carbon footprint of building materials and equipment – using concrete and steel in the construction of the building, and, by moving out of a legacy data centre to a new build to increase the opportunity to create energy efficiency, operators cannot avoid leaving behind huge tracts of embodied carbon.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into scope one, two, and three,” explains Brown. “Scope three includes all of the emissions that are outside of an operator’s control and is embodied in the building and equipment that they use.

“A lot of companies do not put as much effort into mitigating for scope three emissions as they do for the others. However, it is an incredibly important aspect of a full lifecycle assessment for carbon in the data centre sector, and the Uptime Institute are encouraging operators to think much more carefully about these scope three emissions.”

Brown goes on to say that the discussion centred around engine generators and battery storage is a prime example of oversight in scope three emissions.

“An engine generator only pollutes when it runs and has a lifespan of roughly 30 years if the equipment is well maintained. Lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, are always online, charging and discharging power, and have a service life of only ten years.”

“The question data centre operators have to ask themselves is whether it is worth moving from an optimised system to a new system which is not highly optimised and does not have a comprehensive recycling system in place as-yet, in terms of scope three emissions.

“Often, I see operators calculate the cost of moving to a new data centre, or implementing the latest equipment, purely on how much money they can save or how much more efficient they can become. Both are fine metrics, but it is much more difficult to count the cost of embodied carbon.”

Problems not insurmountable

There are clearly many hurdles to overcome for the data centre industry to hit the efficiency and sustainability targets that it wants to achieve, but Brown concludes that, while the scale of the challenge may seem bleak, solutions are within reach.

“A lot of people view our industry as quite conservative in nature, and that we are slow to enact change. However, we are also good at solving problems. Everyone is working towards the same goals because the environment and climate are two of the biggest topics in the world right now, and because there are economic benefits to achieving increased efficiency and sustainability too.

“There are many ways to build a data centre, different approaches to power generation, various different cooling methods – the problems are real, but they are by no means insurmountable.”

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