From buzzword to reality: a 5-step plan to address data centre sustainability
By Mark Deguara, General Manager Data Centres, Schneider Electric
Tuesday, 21 June, 2022
As Australia transitions towards a more automated and digital future, it is increasingly evident that data centres are our beating heart. More and more data flows through data centres every day, so it is essential, now more than ever, that they are secure, efficient, reliable and adaptable.
However, putting this into practice is no easy feat and requires a substantial amount of energy. According to some estimates, data centre energy consumption represents 1–2%1 of global energy use.
Demand is only set to increase, with a recent report released by Schneider Electric finding that IT sector electricity demand is expected to grow by ~50% by 2030, reaching 3200 TWh.
The mission towards achieving overall sustainability and greener practices and policies has quickly gone from buzzword to reality for many businesses as we see more and more internet giants announcing aggressive pledges to achieve carbon neutral operations.
As more of these corporations adopt environmental, social and corporate governance goals, data centres should follow suit, starting with five simple processes.
1. Set a bold actionable strategy
Sustainability needs to be at the forefront of corporate strategies. It’s no longer enough to have a separate section for environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria; sustainability priorities need to be built into every element of organisational strategy and reporting.
This includes setting ambitious climate and sustainability targets and, using a data-driven approach, creating an actionable strategy to reach those targets. Many of today’s data centre operators, from hyperscalers to cloud and colocation service providers, have already led the market by example and publicly declared ambitious commitments towards net zero, adopting more sustainable approaches to digital business.
Microsoft, for example, has started transitioning to using renewable wind energy — a trend that will likely only continue to increase as awareness of and demand for renewables from end users and governments surge.
2. Implement efficient data centre designs
Many data centres have not adapted design since their inception. There is value for data centre providers to consider new data centre designs or concepts that meet sustainability and efficiency goals — those that can be applied to new projects or used to retrofit existing facilities.
3. Drive efficiency in operations
Organisations can be more specific in their objectives and energy strategies by analysing their operations and looking to the available technology to drive efficiencies.
Software and digital services now exist to enable remote monitoring capabilities that drive efficiency in day-to-day operations in data centres. Data centre providers should be using these technologies to reduce waste at every point of their operations.
Operators should also be prioritising equipment maintenance and modernisation to optimise the life span and efficiency of their systems. This simple process saves costs in the long run and can reduce the emissions cost of procuring new equipment and systems.
Although some of the boxes are checked, there are other components to consider that could contribute to further significant gains. The focus on large data centres has really paid off and now organisations need to focus on edge IT, telco edge and everything within the digital infrastructure ecosystem that is outside of those big data centres.
4. Buy renewable energy (PPA and onsite)
Data centre providers would be wise to consider a custom renewable procurement strategy. This may include microgrids, PPAs, VPPAs, energy-as-a-service and EACs.
Many of the hyperscalers are now buying renewable energy; however, much of that energy is actually used elsewhere, while fossil fuel-based energy is consumed in their data centres. While buying renewable energy to be used by others is laudable, to truly minimise the environmental impact of a data centre project, data centres need to use locally generated renewable power.
Many data centres are built in out-of-town locations where land is relatively cheap. There is significant opportunity to buy additional land and locate some renewable power generation directly adjacent to the data centre. This has the effect of eliminating transmission losses, genuinely minimising environmental impact.
In 2015, Swedish energy company Falu Energi & Vatten and entrepreneurial firm EcoDC AB built the EcoDataCentre, an approximately 5.75-acre data centre facility powered from only renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water and biofuels. In addition, heat generated by the data centre — which would otherwise be wasted — is used in the district’s heating and cooling systems for an overall environmental plus. The outcome was significant gains in efficiency and lowered operating costs.
5. Decarbonise supply chains
Finally, it is not enough to do this alone. The industry needs to work together towards sustainability, and each operator needs to look beyond its own operations. This includes evaluating Scope 3 emissions (those indirectly resulting from the operator’s supply and value chain) and identifying and executing strategies to meet decarbonisation objectives.
While tracking Scope 3 emissions can be a considerable time investment, it can have a substantially positive impact on sustainability. More often than not, tracking requires a screening assessment of all categories of Scope 3 to ensure that the organisation is targeting the sources with the largest emissions. There are numerous coalitions that exist to help identify the primary data of suppliers, assess its quality, remove outliers and calculate a comprehensive carbon footprint. This process often helps distil feasible strategies to reduce emissions going forward.
In its November 2019 report, Global Market Insights estimated the size of the Green Data Centre Market at over US$6.5 billion in 2018, with a projected increase of 23.5% CAGR from 2019 to 2026.2 While incorporating sustainability into their practices may seem overwhelming for many established data centre providers, if they fail to do so they may very quickly be left behind.
There are actionable ways providers can build efficient data centres with sustainability embedded into the core of their operations. These actions may seem hard now, but they will be increasingly important as more customers base their decision-making on working with those organisations that have a green agenda.
With the right advice, strategy and commitment, data centres can become more sustainable, and this can have important consequences for their efficiency, security and performance.
1. Linda Zhang and Robert Bunger, Schneider Electric – Energy Management Research Center White Paper 64, ‘Why Data Centers Must Prioritize Environmental Sustainability: Four Key Drivers’.
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