Implementing A Circular Economy in Data Center Cooling

Written By

Nabeel Mahmood, Co-Founder of
Nabeel Mahmood is a Technologist, Futurist, and a Keynote Speaker. His career is driven by one question – what’s next? He is passionate about the power of technology to deliver competitive and transformational change and the need to develop digital leadership that will create the enterprise of the future. He believes strongly in simplification, with a purpose.


Nomad Futurist

The world’s data consumption has seen a remarkable surge over the years. From 2000 to 2023, internet usage increased by 1,355 percent. As of 2023, the number of internet users worldwide stands at 5.18 billion, meaning that around two-thirds of the global population is online. This burgeoning digital dependency, coupled with our reliance on streaming services, social media platforms, high-speed internet, and AI technologies, instigates the need for robust data centers to support this digital growth.

However, it’s crucial to note that data center operations are among the most significant energy consumers globally. A report from the Department of Energy estimated that American data centers’ energy consumption cost is nearly 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year. This striking figure challenges industry leaders to consider green energy alternatives for powering centers while aligning with the global movement toward sustainability.

A refined solution to this issue is implementing a circular economy model, exemplified by companies like Start Campus. This global green technology company designs and builds 100% green energy ecosystems, has effectively incorporated the principles of a circular economy into its operational and sustainability strategies, setting a benchmark for sustainable data center solutions. The circular economy is an economic model that promotes recycling, reusing, and repairing products to extend their life cycle and reduce waste. For a data center, this translates into extending the lifespan of equipment, minimizing waste, encouraging eco-friendly practices like recycling, designing repairable equipment, utilizing renewable energy, and advocating efficient resource usage, including power and cooling. Implementing these strategies allows industry leaders to create an energy-efficient data center that contributes to a sustainable and resilient digital ecosystem without compromising capacity or efficiency.

Embarking on a journey towards a circular economy begins with a strategic decision about the data center’s location. This decision ensures optimal use of local resources and climate conditions, reducing energy consumption and environmental impact and setting the stage for a genuinely green data center. As the world transitions from fossil fuels, many nuclear and coal power plants are being decommissioned, providing facilities that can be repurposed for modern digital infrastructure. Embracing this opportunity, Start Campus evaluated nearly 100 such sites, finally choosing Sines, Portugal, for its first data center. This choice was influenced by the site’s pre-existing capacity for ocean water cooling, a feature previously used by the site’s former occupant, a coal power plant.

Located on Portugal’s coast, Sines offers access to the Atlantic Ocean, a natural cold-water source. By choosing sites with oceanic access, operators can enjoy the benefits of green cooling alternatives, including optimal efficiency metrics such as power usage effectiveness (PUE), water usage effectiveness (WUE), and carbon usage effectiveness (CUE).

Leveraging an innovative system pivot, Start Campus utilized the cold ocean water to cool its data center, significantly reducing construction costs and materials. Moreover, this approach enabled a zero-consumption cooling system for day-to-day operations. This ingenious adaptation of existing infrastructure exemplifies the circular economy methodology, showcasing how Start Campus successfully repurposed the site and optimized resource use.

Water is crucial for data center cooling systems, but its use often leads to negative environmental and social impacts due to the high amounts required. The circular economy model offers a solution: transform challenges into opportunities. An effective strategy to mitigate this footprint is repurposing the wastewater generated in the cooling process, “closing the loop” by recycling this natural resource. Start Campus identified potential partnerships with neighboring industries to achieve this. Because seawater is slightly warmer after cooling the data center, it is ideal for desalination — converting it into freshwater.

In forging strategic alliances, industry frontrunners can cultivate thriving ecosystems around their establishments. This benefits the wider community and significantly curtails expenditures, particularly in light of the projected escalation in carbon taxation. Start Campus heralds judicious water consumption as the cornerstone of eco-friendly data center cooling, transforming sustainability into a viable business proposition for myriad sectors. By embracing a circular economy paradigm from inception, data centers can spearhead the journey toward a greener, more sustainable future.

Fabiola Bordino, Head of Sustainability, Communication and Marketing of Start Campus, succinctly sums up their commitment to sustainable data centers: “Start Campus is committed to the principles of the circular economy and sustainability in the tech industry. Our focus on minimizing environmental impact and efficiently using resources is the base pillar of our company. Repurposing the ocean water cooling infrastructure from a decommissioned coal power plant and utilizing waste-water from a neighboring LNG plant for cooling at the Sines project is a fantastic example of innovative, eco-friendly solutions. This not only reduces the costs associated with construction and materials but also lowers the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), which is a critical metric for data center efficiency.

Efficient cooling is a significant concern for data centers, and by leveraging these adjacent industry technologies, you’re not only reducing your environmental footprint but also making your operations more cost-effective. This approach aligns well with the broader goals of sustainability and environmental responsibility, and it sets a great example for the tech industry as a whole. By being proactive in finding environmentally friendly solutions, we at Start Campus are contributing to a more sustainable future for the tech industry, which is crucial in a world where technology plays such a central role in our lives.”

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