Reaping the rewards of a green data centre strategy

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The COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight society’s dependence on digital services. From e-commerce and public services to the ability to work from home, most UK citizens now are regular users of digital technology. What a lot of people do not know is that data centres, the infrastructure behind connected tech, sit at the heart the digital economy.

However, what is well documented is the environmental impact of data centres. Swedish researcher Anders Andrae predicts that by 2025, data centres will amount to ICT’s largest share of global electricity production. He expects data centres to use 20 per cent of the world’s energy by this point too, placing their carbon footprint at 5.5 per cent of the global value – above that of some other notoriously power-hungry sectors.

Reports like this mean that there is naturally significant impetus to green the data centre – the EU Commission says the industry “should become climate neutral by 2030”. That being said, while the topic of data centre efficiency should certainly be debated and discussed, it is also important to recognise that the industry has made strides from the legacy data centres of years past. Looking at construction in particular, there is real evidence that data centres are becoming increasingly environmentally sympathetic, with some providers able to boast impressive green credentials.

With that in mind, how are the builders of the digital infrastructure ensuring their construction strategies are green? And what rewards are they getting for doing so?

A holistic strategy

While consuming large volumes of energy, it is still more efficient to centralise IT resources in modern data centres than relying on-premise storage solutions. In addition, corporate customers can now be assured that the savviest data centre providers are focusing on delivering a cradle to grave green strategy, where environmental ambitions are built into every step of construction and maintenance. 

For David Watkins, solutions director at VIRTUS Data Centres, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards are an important step forward to ensuring sustainability.

He believes that, for the most progressive providers like VIRTUS Data Centres, green strategy begins with construction. “BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology.” he says. “Each of these categories is important – addressing the most influential factors, including low impact design and carbon emissions reduction; design durability and resilience; adaption to climate change; and ecological value and biodiversity protection.”

As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).

Looking at plant management, there are now many technologies and methodologies which can be deployed to drive efficiency. Examples of this include highly efficient UPS (uninterrupted power supply), where unused capacity can hibernate to reduce electrical losses. CRAC (computer room air conditioning) units are typically equipped with variable speed fans that will regulate in line with demand to reduce energy consumption. Pumps are equipped with variable speed drives, that again will regulate in line with demand to reduce consumption. Additionally, chillers often have free cooling functionality, where within certain temperature ranges cooling can be provided with reduced energy consumption. Ground and air source heat pumps are also being deployed, along with local energy generation all making use of clean, naturally available resources.

The best providers do not just look at running the site, but adjunct areas too, like how staff are getting to and from a campus. Indeed, when it comes to green credentials it is true that everything counts. That is perhaps why some experts talk about ‘shades of green’ – mooting the idea that all data centres are the same, and some are greener than others, despite all claiming green credentials.

Addressing the cost factor

For many in the technology industries, green has historically meant expensive. For Watkins, though, this preconception is simply no longer true. “As green technologies develop and become more prevalent, demand will drive down price, making it much more affordable to be environmentally aware.” he says.

Supporting this viewpoint are reports which show that infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16 per cent since 2014, demonstrating that where steps are taken to improve issues like heating and cooling, cost savings can be made. The same is true when it comes to energy – the cost of renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels. Indeed, on average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power costs less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.

In addition, green measures are supported by a number of governments around the world offering tax incentives to invest in environmentally conscious technology, in order to support carbon reduction targets at a national level. 

Looking at return on investment

In order to really deliver for corporate customers, green data centre strategy must be a long-term solution, not a short-term fix or a tick box exercise. “Fixing what is broken will always be a near-term priority for CIOs, but planning ahead, while harder in uncertain times, is critical to securing the future success of the organisation,” says Nicole Sturgill, research Vice President at Gartner.

Being a responsible operator with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is not just the right thing to do, it is increasingly what customers are demanding, and can actually deliver commercial benefits.

The clearest return on investment for companies who invest in sustainability strategies is in cost savings. However, more broadly, helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies are not negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of fuelling a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is likely to help reduce pollution significantly.

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