Scandinavia provides a model for sustainability in digital infrastructure

As our lives become increasingly reliant upon digital technology – from the streaming platforms and virtual conference calls at home, to the artificial intelligence and machine learning in the workplace – data centres are fast becoming critical infrastructure essential for the functioning of society and the economy. In recent years, as the scale of the need for data centre infrastructure has become clearer, operators have been attempting to drive towards sustainable solutions to reduce their impact on the environment and play their part in achieving the net zero emissions target outlined at the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.

The Scandinavian region has one of the highest levels of green energy generation in the world, derived mainly from wind and hydro power. Because of this, data centre operators are increasingly looking at investing in places such as Sweden and Norway to take advantage of this green energy, as well as utilise the climate for more efficient cooling systems. EcoDataCenter have been operating in Sweden for the last five years and are at the forefront of the Scandinavian region’s data centre revolution.

Senior advisor, Lars Schedin, has been with the company since the inception of the business concept, and began his journey by examining whether the project would present a viable business opportunity.

“I spent a year checking the sustainability situation and performing calculations. After that year, we realised that, yes, this venture will find plenty of market opportunity, knowing that sustainability would become more and more important in the market overall.

“We started building our first data centre after that initial consultation phase, and we are now located in three different municipalities within Sweden,” says Schedin. “Our main site is located in Falun, which is specialised for high-performance computing, but we also have two data centres in the Arctic circle, in Piteå, close to where Facebook is located, and two colocation data centres in Stockholm.”

While EcoDataCenter currently operate at a capacity of eight-megawatts (MW) at their Falun site, there is potential for the construction and operation of up to 500MW of capacity.

“In the long run, this company will become a building and installation company, making sure that we can meet the service demands of our customers going forward.”

The potential Scandinavian data centre market boom

According to Schedin, Scandinavia has yet to see the true scale of potential for the data centre market in the region.

“Initially, everyone was talking about the flat market. Thereafter, it was the tier two level facilities, in places like Madrid, Milan, Warsaw, and Berlin. But now, data centres support so many more industries with various processes – computing capacity, artificial intelligence, analytics, big data, machine learning, and so on. These kinds of operations are completely different to any cloud or transactional basis, and they are not as latency dependent as a lot of other things, so you do not need to be located in big cities to accommodate them.

“Up in the North, in Norway or Sweden, is the perfect place to deploy this computing capacity because the energy produced there is much greener, is inexpensive, and available via a credible, stable grid system.

Naturally, Schedin argues that Sweden it is in a unique position as the most credible and relevant player denominating green power to the data centre industry within the EU.

“You could set up elsewhere, where they have different power mixes, and you could buy green certificates. But I personally believe that the need for green certificates and power purchase agreements will erode over time, because that is really nothing else but greenwashing.”

Achieving the world’s first climate positive data centre

While there are multiple different methods of reducing and mitigating for carbon emissions, at present it is impossible to run a data centre without causing a carbon footprint of some kind. This is because of factors including the types of equipment used in a data centre, and the embedded carbon used in the construction of the building. However, despite currently causing direct or indirect emissions of 16 grammes per kilowatt hour, Schedin claims that EcoDataCenter runs the first climate positive data centre in the world.

“The way that we are claiming to be climate positive is not that we are capturing carbon or storing and utilising it. It is because we are avoiding it. By reusing heat, we are avoiding more emissions than we are causing for our customers.

“We are trying to verify that in calculations, and the main part of that formula is derived from the way we are producing pellets – wood chips containing sawdust. During the fall and wintertime, those pellets are sold to companies and private homes that are not connected to the distribution system, and whose alternative would be to use oil burners. So, you can imagine, for each hour they are burning pellets instead of oil, they are managing to avoid huge amounts of carbon emissions.”

Of course, burning pellets is by no means an emission-free fuel, causing approximately 17 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour. Burning oil, however, produces much more CO2 in comparison, and so the climate arbitrage for burning pellets instead of oil is much better.

While Schedin is quick to note that their methodology for calculating the amount of carbon produced by EcoDataCenter is probably not 100 per cent correct, they are making a comprehensive attempt at identifying where their carbon emissions come from.

“We know, for instance, exactly how many litres of concrete our foundation contains, and we know that each litre of concrete accounts for approximately two and a half kilograms of embedded carbon. And from that point, you can simply calculate it. That is what we have been doing for lithium-ion batteries, for all the components used to construct buildings, and other things.”

Innovative engineering solutions for the future of data centre sustainability

Research and development are key to EcoDataCenter’s future sustainability solutions, and they are already exploring multiple ways to further increase their green credentials. One of the ways in which they have done this is to use wood as a construction material for new data centre buildings, instead of steel or concrete. This is because, when compared to steel and concrete, laminated wood is easy to work with and is very sustainable.

They are also working towards the implementation of emersion and liquid cooling solutions. While more costly, liquid-based cooling solutions are beginning to be adopted more widely as data centres deal with larger loads, because they use less energy, and run completely silently. This improves working conditions, but it also has a positive effect on the power usage effectiveness of the facility too.

Overall, Schedin concludes that the market demand for data centre access is estimated to be much larger than was anticipated in their original plan.

“We are seeing a new generation of advertising and media companies that require one or more megawatts of capacity. That is where I expect the industry to grow, and personally I believe that the competitive Nordic landscape will go through a transformation within the next 12 months.”

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