Ghosts and ghouls – global data centre energy consumption

Written By

John Booth
Managing Director

at

Carbon3IT

John Booth, managing director, Carbon3IT asks if we really have a good enough understanding of data centre energy usage.

Many of you will be aware that the actual amount of energy that data centres use globally is an ethereal thing, a constantly moving, difficult to pin down a number, and shrouded in mystery; some estimates have it at one per cent, some at three per cent and some at an alarming ten per cent.

The first question we need to ask is what is a data centre?

The Climate Change Agreement (CCA) for Data Centre defines it as ‘The business activity is the leasing or licensing of a data facility which is being used as a data centre’. In this instance data facility means a room, or rooms sharing the same electricity supply circuit, occupied mainly or exclusively by computer equipment that is enabled to transfer data electronically, and where it meets three criteria.

First that the temperature and humidity are regulated in connection with the operation of the computer equipment. Secondly that the electricity supply is at least 200kW and finally that the electricity is supplied by a back-up electricity supply when the mains supply is interrupted.

The EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) (EUCOC) is a tad looser, with data centres including all buildings, facilities and rooms that contain enterprise servers, server communication equipment, cooling equipment and power equipment, and provide some form of data service (eg large scale, mission-critical facilities all the way down to small server rooms located in office buildings).  Note that in the EUCOC there is no minimum energy requirement, so a small server room can be included.

UK data centre energy use?

Back in 2017, data from the Climate Change Agreement for Data Centres second reporting period indicated that UK data centres in the scheme had used 2.579TWh, which was 0.79 per cent of total UK energy generation that period, being 339TWh or just 0.285 per cent of primary energy (coal/gas etc), all good right? A nice clean number from actual data.

Real data centre energy use in the UK?

The thing is this, this data, excellent as it is, is confined to one segment of the data centre sector, being the professional colocation sector, and it excludes all enterprise data centres, server rooms and closets and the network providers, such as BT. It also excludes private companies that provide CDN and streaming services.

In essence, we are trying to determine the overall energy use based on one element, this is like trying to use the data from F1 cars (6 mpg) and saying that if we multiply it by the number of normal cars on the road, we’ll get the global figure, and this is clearly rubbish.

So back in 2017, after the second CCA for Data Centres was published, I conducted a little research exercise based on an average server room (50 items of equipment, and costing around £57k per annum to run) and multiplied it by the number of businesses registered in the UK that had between 50 and 250 employees, which was 33,000 and with over 250 employees which is 7000 businesses to get a figure of 40,000 server rooms, I then doubled this (for government, local government, schools, hospitals, and blue light)

80,000 server rooms used 38.54TWh, add the CCA data for professional colocation data centres and you get an overall total of 41.11TWh which represents 12.13per cent of the energy generated in the UK in 2017 and cost business between £4-6Billion (depending on tariff)

The experts

Science magazine published an article on global data centre energy use in Feb 2020, their conclusion was that data centres accounted for one per cent of energy demand globally, but that assessing implications of growing demand for data centres requires a robust understanding of the scale and drivers of global data centre energy use that has eluded many policymakers and energy analysts.

The reason for this blind spot is a historical lack of bottom-up information on data centre types and locations, their IT equipment, and their energy efficiency trends.

This has led to sporadic and often contradictory literature on global data centre energy use.

But it warned that the growth of data centre construction projects could lead to a doubling of compute capacity in the next three to four years and that policymakers should consider three main areas of action: Policy support – energy efficiency standards IT equipment; investment in new technologies and public data and modelling

Global data centre energy use is entering a critical transition phase; to ensure a low-carbon and energy-efficient future we cannot wait another decade for the next reliable bottom-up estimates.

The EU had already acted on the first point, by the implementation of the Lot 9 Enterprise eco-design requirements, and these were further tightened in March 2021. The EU Fit for 55 proposals published in August included the requirement for a mandatory data centre registry in each member state to gather the data required to address the third point. The second point requires the data centre sector to move away from 20th-century designs and embrace technologies such as immersed compute, waste heat reuse and energy flexibility services.

What next?

Of course, now that the UK is no longer an EU member state, we will not have to abide by the new legislation, but it would be remiss of us not to take guidance from other countries regarding data centre energy efficiency and sustainability.

The CCA for Data Centres has driven PUE levels down overall, but more needs to be done by individual operators, those not included in the CCA scheme, to meet the UK’s carbon and net-zero goals.

The latest CCA report (third period) indicated that the sector had met the overall scheme goals early, but some operators needed to improve, perhaps the damning quote is this one. “While the commercial sector is heavily scrutinised, we still need to tackle the lingering problem of distributed IT”. This of course refers to the data centres/server rooms not included in the CCA and includes some commercial operators and all enterprise data centre server rooms.

As per our calculations, this is approximately 10-11 per cent of overall UK energy consumption and it is largely hidden, out of the reach of any policy measures, and unreported. More to the point, this represents a huge energy saving opportunity both for the individual organisations concerned and the country, to enable us to meet those net zero and energy efficiency goals.

So, some scary stuff for Halloween, but we have to consider one important aspect, data centres and the services they provide are essential for modern life, but that could be said of many other sectors and services, but we can and do provide carbon mitigation for many other areas, but it’s time for this sector to step up and do some really innovative stuff, such as that radical rethink of everything we do that has been mentioned in some of the webinars published on the DIN website.

Happy Halloween!

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