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Data centre operators are critical partners in environmental sustainability

Data centre operators are critical partners in environmental sustainability

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Reaching environmental goals is no longer just an option for data centre leaders as they are required to focus strongly on creating a sustainable future for all. Amanda Sutton, Senior Director of Sustainability, Vantage Data Centers, discusses how to ensure a better and more sustainable future for the world at large and looks beyond just simply using renewable/clean power as the only solution.

In business, the word ‘value’ typically refers to the financial worth of an organisation, but when talking about data centres and sustainability, value takes on multiple meanings. Yes, value is and always will be associated with a business’ financial assets, but to operate successfully in a world where climate concerns and human environmental damage top the list of the biggest global threats, today’s data centre providers must also take a long-term approach to adhering to ecological and community values. After all, these elements, combined with financial success, are inextricably linked to positive outcomes.

Data centre operators have an even greater role and responsibility for environmental stewardship than their communities might believe. For instance, data centres are major consumers of power. In 2020, the average data centre is estimated to have used between 400 and 500 terawatt hours. And as the European data centre market grows by a CAGR of 11% by 2023, sustainability initiatives by operators will be increasingly essential.

But the road to environmental sustainability is not the job of one person, company or data centre provider, and it’s not just about reducing electricity consumption. Improved sustainability will only happen if data centres, local authorities and regional utility organisations work together on projects and solutions that advance their shared environmental goals. And while reducing electricity is important, it’s not the only factor that needs to be considered when driving sustainability initiatives. Limiting carbon emissions, conserving water and minimising resource and construction waste are also critical to the effort.

As data centre operators, we are in a unique position to become leaders in this sustainability initiative, and not just because of the amount of power our facilities consume. We traditionally have close ties to our communities and relationships with utility partners, which put us in a prime position to positively impact sustainability efforts in those regions. We also tend to have a better understanding than most about how our industry impacts the environment, as we continually monitor Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE), invest in more efficient cooling equipment and generally strive to be good environmental stewards.

But there’s always room for improvement. To that end, let’s dive a little deeper into the importance of partnerships and some specific tactics we can employ to ensure a better and more sustainable future for the regions we serve and the world at large.

Forging local and industry partnerships is key

It’s cliche to say ‘we’re all in this together’, but when it comes to environmental sustainability, it’s absolutely true. Sustainability can only be achieved by data centre operators and local organisations asserting their commitments to conserving natural resources and minimising environmental footprints — and proactively working together to realise those commitments.

There are many ways in which we can contribute and become valuable partners in this joint effort. For example, we can continue to work closely with our regional utility partners to better manage expected loads, develop innovative energy storage solutions and invest in renewable energy. We can also work with local government agencies on longer term planning for energy and infrastructure needs that drive carbon emission reductions while maintaining power reliability.

We can take things even further and create tangible examples of our commitment to being a good business partner to local communities and supporting their local sustainability initiatives. For instance, in Zurich, Vantage Data Centers will have a dedicated green space just outside of the fenced campus dedicated to pedestrian usage. This is just one of many examples of a data centre operator and local leaders partnering to further mutual conservation goals.

As an industry, we must all come together to further environmental goals and ensure a more viable and sustainable future. Organisations like the Data Centre Coalition and its Public Policy Priorities are a good starting point. Yet we must continue to look for additional opportunities that will enable us all to collaborate on all levels as we tackle sustainability challenges.

Broadening the perspective beyond power is critical

When data centre operators think about sustainability, the first thing they tend to look at is power consumption. That makes sense given the points made above, but there is more to the sustainability discussion beyond the use of renewable/clean power and how best to reduce the amount of energy data centres use.

In fact, we must all start thinking about sustainability before sites are selected and the first layer of concrete is poured for our building’s foundations. To add the most value, sustainable design must begin in the initial planning stages and involve a number of considerations, including the location of the facility, sources of available energy, how to leverage the regional climate for cooling or heating, and local regulations and requirements. These considerations are the first step towards creating a more sustainable operation over the life of the asset.

It’s also important to consider water consumption and carbon emissions. What can we do to offset emissions in ways that are both meaningful to the environment and that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere? How do we account for embodied carbon in building materials and use that to inform design? How can we minimise water usage? Employing water reclamation methods for reduced waste or responsibly using grey water can make a big difference in water impacts. Meanwhile, reducing energy consumption by leveraging outside air for more efficient cooling and increasing use of alternative energy will help decrease and avoid CO2 emissions overall.

These do not have to be large and costly initiatives. Simple gestures, like using automated LED lighting systems in car parks and providing electric vehicle charging stations, also help. Indeed, even these small things push our industry further forward on the sustainability path.

Keep adding value

Albert Einstein once said, ‘strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value’. Yet I would argue that the two go hand-in-hand. If we can continue to drive value — by becoming valuable corporate citizens, by delivering value to our environmentally-conscious customers, and by being valuable assets to local sustainability initiatives — our industry will succeed in becoming a beacon for others to follow.

For that to happen, we must continue pushing forward and exploring creative strategies to support local and global environmental efforts. For example, in Zurich, Vantage Data Centers has designed our facilities with the ability to connect to district heating if and when a municipal project is planned. This would enable interested local officials to redeploy the waste heat our data centres generate as a heating source for other buildings. That kind of collaboration effectively illustrates how industry leaders and local authorities can work together to generate effective and practical solutions that provide value to customers and the community.

In the end, that’s the kind of ideal combination we should strive for: strong partnerships, smart resource management and a passion for doing everything we can to get us all where we need to be.

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