Michael Winterson, managing director of Equinix Services, and chairman of the European Data Centre Association (EUDCA), discusses how the data centre industry can meet its carbon neutral targets by 2030.
Today’s economy runs on digital infrastructure. Global tech giants like Facebook, Zoom, and Google simply would not exist without these digital networks. Similarly, everything from virtual GP appointments to food delivery services are only possible because of the data centres that house their operations and link them to end-users.
Given that modern economic growth is inextricably linked to increasing data flows, it is essential that these digital networks continue to expand. However, this expansion should not occur at the expense of the environment or global efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.
In Europe, data centre operators and trade associations have pledged to make data centres climate neutral by 2030. Progress so far has been rapid and extremely promising, with operators shifting to renewable energy sources, more efficient technologies, and green data centre designs. However, to meet the end of decade target, the industry must maintain this momentum and continue to develop ‘green’ technologies and deliver long term sustainability practices.
As part of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, the industry has identified five key focus areas for achieving climate neutrality. These are: improving and measuring energy efficiency, utilising renewable and low-carbon energy, prioritising water conservation, recycling waste heat, and encouraging the reuse and repair of servers.
Regarding energy efficiency, it is important to understand exactly how much energy data centres use and where efficiencies can be gained. By leveraging AI algorithms, automated data centres can track energy usage and optimise their operations, as well as schedule workloads based on renewable energy availability. Continually analysing airflow and an obsession with reducing unnecessary cooling continues to deliver benefits. Looking forward, adopting next generation technologies like liquid cooling will further increase efficiency, reduce water usage, and increase reusable heat.
Expanding the use of renewable and low carbon energy is crucial to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. One interesting bridging technology is replacing the fossil fuel diesel we run our generators on with renewable HVO fuels (based on vegetable oil). We also use AI and digital twin technology to maintain our generators without having to run them at full load for testing. In the longer run we see completely new energy systems based on hydrogen fuel cells currently being developed by the Clean Hydrogen Partnership. These could replace diesel generators with a clean energy source, thus reducing harmful emissions, lowering costs, and making data centres easier to deploy in populated areas.
In terms of water conservation, meeting water usage effectiveness (WUE) and establishing water positivity will continue to fuel sustainable innovation in the years to come. Switching to fuel cells that require less water and are up to 45% cleaner, and using recycled water by harvesting rainwater and non-drinkable water, have proven to be efficient in reducing water usage to meet the expected WUE of 0.4 L/kWh by 2025 for data centres at full capacity. Liquid cooling allows datacentres to run warmer, meaning less use of refrigerants or evaporative cooling. Generally, datacentres run warmer today than they did 20 years ago, and we will continue to increase temperatures as server technology improves. This means we use “free air cooling” (read: no AC) most, if not all year long.
To turn the challenge of surplus heat usage into a decarbonisation asset, reusing waste heat in data centres and turning it into a secondary product is also at the forefront of the industry’s sustainability agenda. Cities like Helsinki are starting to see the benefit of recovered data centre heat being distributed in local homes and businesses as a low-carbon alternative.
Similarly, it is essential that the industry continues to utilise waste products in data centres by reusing and recycling resources. The Open19 Foundation, an initiative bringing together a collaboration of industry leaders, including Equinix, is focused on minimising e-waste through standardisation and open-source design of hardware and software. For example, many servers are currently overengineered, resulting in components not being recyclable and going to waste. In collaboration with the Open 19 project, companies, such as Equinix, are developing industry standard servers that do not contain surplus components and are more durable, with a lifespan of 10-12 years, compared to today’s average of 3 to 5 years.
While positive progress is being made to reach net-zero, the industry must now accelerate its effects to reach its 2030 target. Climate challenges facing the data centre industry are too complex to be addressed by organisations working in isolation. It will take a concerted effort by industry leaders, governments, policymakers, technologists, and innovators working collaboratively to support global efforts to safeguard the planet’s future.