Wes Swenson, CEO of Novva Data Centers looks at how data centres can walk the talk when it comes to environmental performance.
Earth Day is the time of year when many companies perform their yearly evaluations of sustainability commitments and initiatives. With each passing year, sustainability, and more broadly, environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, are seen less and less as cherry on top promises and are becoming a necessity for all companies looking to make impactful changes while boosting employee, customer, and investor satisfaction in the process.
With more than 82 per cent of professional investors around the world committing to increased ESG investments this year, there’s no doubt that the time for companies to adopt more sustainable practices is now. The data centre industry especially, which is typically viewed as being energy inefficient, has an opportunity to evaluate its environmental impact and make changes today to create a new narrative and future for our industry.
In honour of Earth Day, as our collective conscience urges us to go green, let us examine a few sustainable best practices when it comes to creating and operating data centres that will make future generations proud. From site selection to considerations for offsetting carbon emissions and even fostering a green mindset among employees, a few simple considerations can set you on your way to operating a greener data centre.
Choose your location wisely
You may have heard that there are three main things you should look for when choosing a property: “Location, location, location.” While famously used to refer to houses, the statement rings true for data centres, too. The physical location of your data centre has major environmental implications, especially when you consider energy and cooling needs, which are typically the largest energy draw for data centres.
Hot desert environments have less hours in which a data centre can use ambient air or free cool to operate the data centre. They must generate cool air either through refrigeration technologies, or the most used method of water evaporation cooling. The lower your average outside operating temperatures, the lower your cooling energy required to maintain the servers. Another example of how location dictates sustainability is when data centres rely on water-based cooling in an area where water is scarce, which can have a negative impact despite it being a more sustainable practice elsewhere. We need to ask ourselves if water cooling technologies need to be abandoned in the future, but at the very least, exploring waterless cooling options and weighing their energy efficiency against more traditional cooling methods is warranted.
Exposure to natural disasters and inclement weather are other ways location should factor into your data centre site selection as they will determine your ultimate investment in ensuring resiliency and remediation. Selecting a location that has minimal risk to those climate factors may leave budgetary room for investing in more sustainable energy storage systems, thus minimizing the overall impact your centre can have on the environment.
Some of the lesser known but still impactful aspects of site selection lie within the daily operations and needs of your centre and staff. Something as simple as proximity to public transportation should be considered when looking at potential locations, since your employees’ daily commute can impact their quality of life as well as the environment. Selecting a location that allows for shorter individual commutes, or is central to public transportation, or bike and walking trails can significantly reduce your team’s daily carbon emission levels. Reducing the total number of days your employees commute by offering flexible work schedules is another simple, sustainable practice.
Addressing energy consumption
It wouldn’t be productive to discuss greener data centre practices without addressing the elephant in the room: energy consumption. According to the International Energy Agency, data centres accounted for one per cent of global electricity demand in 2020. Considering the near tripling of global internet traffic between 2017 and 2021, data centres’ energy consumption is expected to keep pace with the need for bandwidth.
In the coming years, data centre operators can expect to see exponential growth of new clean energy sources, including hydrogen and nuclear fusion, which promise limitless green electricity with limited fuel needed. But as it stands today, most data centres can still be classified as simple cycle centres – those that rely on coal-fired power plants – or combined cycle plants, which use sources such as gas and steam. Nuclear is another leading energy source and is favoured for its energy-denseness, resiliency, and long-term use.
All these energy sources have their pros and cons, but one thing they share is that they can easily be combined with wind and solar energy sources to lessen their environmental impact. Both energy sources are becoming commonplace and hold great promise as a secondary energy source for data centres. Large scale renewable projects by the likes of Google and solar power solutions providers test the limits of what’s possible, but for data centre operators dipping their toe into sustainable power sources, the first step is starting with a small-scale installation of turbines or solar panels on a roof, parking structure or even in a field and scaling up. Additionally, pursuing renewable energy credits, or RECs, through local energy suppliers, or buying power purchase agreements for carbon offsets is a great way to assuage energy consumption concerns as operators seek out renewable energy sources.
When talking about energy consumption, it’s important not to overlook how building construction contributes to the overall efficiency of your building. Seek out equipment that can detect air leaks to avoid unnecessary and costly energy loss, and always invest in insulation to avoid coolant loss. Building material sourcing is important, too. If your goal is to design and build a green data centre but you source materials that have a long transportation journey before getting to your site, the carbon footprint of that transportation can be significant. Instead, sourcing local vendors is the more sustainable strategy.
Fostering a Green Company Culture
Perhaps the simplest steps to take in adopting greener practices comes down to company culture. Surely you remember those school-time lessons to reduce, reuse and recycle? Keeping that motto in your head goes a long way when imbuing your data centres with everyday environmentally friendly practices. Invest in resources that inspire action:
- Single use should have no use in your facility. Refillable water stations throughout your data centre help eliminate single-use plastics and encourage employees to bring their own refillable water bottles.
- Receptacles for recycling placed conveniently near your refillable water bottle stations help keep recycling top-of-mind for employees.
- Likewise, available electric charging stations promote use of emissionless cars, bikes, and scooters. Set the example by purchasing electric vehicles when possible, for your business fleet.
- Consider design elements. At one of the data centres my company, Novva Data Centers, operates, we installed artificial grass – no, not because we are envious of sports arenas, but to limit water use associated with tending to live flora and fauna. It’s one example of how your design choices can go a long way for everyday resource expenditures.
Finally, remember to walk the walk. While resources and logistics play a major role in the company culture I’m describing, another major influence is your personal commitment to practicing what you preach–not only in the big decisions such as energy source choices for your facility, but also in the small day-to-day moments. After all, how ironic would it be to set up water stations urging your team to use refillable water bottles only for you to walk in each morning with a plastic water bottle?
Considering the location, technological needs, and company culture of your organization and centre provides the building blocks for a more sustainable operation. While the list above provides some key considerations for operating a greener facility, it truly only scratches the surface of what’s possible. What ways will you green your operations this year?