Guiding a sea change in the pursuit of green data

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By Todd Cushing, president of 1623 Farnam

When it comes to sustainability in the data center industry, we’ve all seen the stats, heard the forecasts and grappled with plans for a green future. There’s no hiding from the reality that data centres, while necessary for supporting and growing a global digital economy, generate impacts that — if not reduced in years to come — could potentially add to environmental threat.

Massive power draws and substantial greenhouse emissions are often an unavoidable part of these data hubs — but the internet (now practically a utility akin to water or electricity) isn’t going anywhere. This is the dilemma that continues to catalyse transformation on the green data front.

Yet, as we balance the need to be wholly innovative and revolutionary in our plans for green operations, we understand this can also hinder progress. Some providers can become stifled or even paralyzed by the idea that if they aren’t making sustainable breakthroughs, they’re not doing their part. Significant progress can be built on the back of widespread, iterative change — even if those changes start small. Every movement starts somewhere, so let’s explore some areas where many data centres can start their journey.

Where does long-term change begin?

Location has become a prime sustainability consideration for new data center builds. Hyperscaler Google recently began moving its workloads around to zones that offer optimized levels of hourly carbon-free energy availability. Access to renewables has become a priority, and Google’s system draws on variables like geography and weather as well to find where the most advantageous, reliable carbon-free energy (CFE) lies.

What locales are at the top of the list? Oregon; São Paulo, Brazil; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Hamina, Finland — even Nebraska, all top the charts. New metrics are being developed and studied every day to help data distribution capitalize on naturally efficient geography, and this information becoming more widely available makes it easier for potential tenants to choose where their IT should live for the greatest sustainability impact.

Still, building location can’t help existing data centres — only those that are yet to come. As we look at enhancing the infrastructure that’s already out there, we see plenty of opportunity for improvement.

Improving from the inside out

Within the data center, cooling still stands as one of the biggest culprits of power consumption. Hot Aisle Containment has been at the forefront as a more efficient cooling strategy. Directing hot air to specific aisles in the data center to prevent it from mixing with cool air and allowing for better control of the ambient temperature in the data center does cut down on energy spend — but only if done right. The trouble is that some providers, while incorporating this tactic with the right intentions, don’t fully understand how to optimize it. Fans can be installed wrong, hot air streams can be misaligned — this all negates the initial efficiency goals. Education on efficient solutions as they emerge will continue to be vital going forward.

Forward-thinking data centres are also beginning to recognize the importance of their extended ecosystem in building greener solutions. Partners can become crucial assets in delivering sustainability options that complement the data center facility. For example, instead of creating its own chilled water plant, some data centres are opting to work with local existing plants to further reduce power consumption.

Going beyond the data center

As noted above, when a sea change is needed, it takes a village to make an impact. That’s why we’ve begun to see legislation and governing bodies pitch in with their own plans to support a technologically empowered future with green foundations. Plans to incorporate more renewables are cropping up in cities and regions across the globe. Notably, the Omaha Public Power District currently offers about 1GW of wind power, serving 38.4% of its retail sales from renewable energy in 2020. They also just recently signed a deal to build an 81MW solar farm — the largest in Nebraska — with construction beginning in 2022.

Meanwhile sustainability standards are growing stricter for things like backup diesel generators, and as tenants recognize their own role in building sustainable frameworks, they’re opting for greener facilities they can feel good about. This demand is driving even more innovation on the data center side, adding momentum every day.  

 A green future will not come from one solution, one data center, or even one industry — that much is clear. However, as these many factors converge in the pursuit of similar sustainable goals, we’re seeing the tides changing. Small changes implemented wherever and whenever possible soon become big changes, and that makes for a very promising digital transformation trajectory.

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