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Putting data centre sustainability into practice

Putting data centre sustainability into practice

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John Booth, Chair DCA Energy Efficiency SIG and MD Carbon 3IT, discusses how the data centre sector can improve its operations to create a more efficient and sustainable business environment, and make the goal of being net zero neutral by 2050, a reality.

There is no doubt that sustainability in terms of data centres is an interesting topic, there is also no doubt that a data centre is where the traditional hard engineering of electrical and mechanical services meets the soft engineering of digital services, the blend of new and old tech coupled with the urgent need to decarbonise makes for a complex discussion and covers many areas.

The Data Centre Alliance’s Sustainability SIG have been preparing a DCA Sustainability whitepaper that will be published in Q1 2022.

As data centre sustainability is a hot topic at the moment, it’s worth asking the question: why?

Background

No one can have possibly failed to notice the climate emergency, with the topic regularly appearing in the media – shedding light on the recent firestorms in the US, Italy and Greece, unseasonal weather in the UK, flooding, the highest ever recorded temperature in Sicily (48°C), ice sheets melting, and that’s just in 2021. The subject has been on the world’s agenda since the UN Rio meeting in 1992.

Subsequent Conference of Parties, or COPs, have taken place at regular intervals – the most recent taking place in Chile in 2019 and another in November in the UK: COP26. The IPCC reports and the actions required are debated, usually resulting in Protocols or Agreements – the best known being the Kyoto Protocol (1997) where countries committed to reducing the amount of the six greenhouse gases (Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)) emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere, and the Paris Agreement (Dec 2015) where the COPs (196) agreed a legally binding agreement on climate change that entered into force in November 2016. This agreement was to limit global warming to well below 2 but preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. In essence, countries aim to reach the global peaking of greenhouse emissions as soon as possible in order to achieve a climate neutral world by 2050.

In essence, in order to achieve this goal, the World Resources Institute has developed 10 key solutions that are needed to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions. These include: phasing out the use of coal power; invest in clean energy and efficiency; retrofit buildings; decarbonise the cement, steel and plastics industries; shift to electric vehicles; increase public transport; decarbonise aviation and shipping; halt deforestation and restore degraded lands; reduce food loss and waste; and eat more plants and less meat.

The World Green Building Council (WGBC) has stated that by 2030, all new buildings should operate at net zero carbon and be net zero neutral by 2050. The WGBC definition of a net zero building is one that is ‘highly energy efficient with all remaining energy from on-site and/or off-site renewable sources’.

What does this have to do with data centres?

There is no doubt that the use of data centres is essential to modern life – we use them for a variety of services and they are without doubt the hubs of the digital highways that process, transit and store data globally. The use of data has contributed to our understanding of climate change and its effects, indeed the latest IPCC 6th AR report, Physical Science Basis, can only have been produced with reference to significant access to and the processing of data, collected globally.

However, at the time of writing, the sector is in a period of prolonged growth with a new project announced almost every day, which will only contribute to energy use and global warming. The question is, given the above net zero carbon goals, how can the data centre sector meet these requirements?

Given that data centres are large energy users, and that significant amounts of materials are used in the construction, fit-out and operations containing embodied energy or scope 3 emissions and that grid and backup power contain both scope 1 (onsite) and scope 2 (procured energy), the task is not insignificant and unfortunately to date, only the minimum has been achieved.

The reason being is that there is no strict definition of what a ‘sustainable’ data centre looks like, but there is some guidance and references to sustainability in the various international Standards and Technical Reports. However, even these fall some way short of what will be required for net zero.

However, is the focus on data centre sustainability unfair? After all, the sector is only responding to demand and that demand comes from you; the consumer of digital services. These digital services are social media, online shopping, streaming, banking, research and whatever else you can do online. And in actual fact, the use of ICT and thus, data centres, are making us more aware of what is affecting the world, from climate research to mitigation, such as reducing the amount of shopping trips in favour of a click, providing us with the power to design to adapt to climate change through better use of data.

In order to meet the world’s climate change and net zero targets, every sector is going to have to change its approach and decarbonise, and that includes the data centre sector. We simply must have a radical rethink of what it is we actually do, and that means a top to bottom transformation, from power to cooling, from business models to security, from fire suppression to access.

It has not escaped governments and other public authorities that data centres are large energy users and use a considerable amount of resources during construction and operations, so it is not unexpected that they are keeping a close eye on the sector. Four locations currently have moratoriums on new builds, these include Frankfurt, Dublin, Singapore and Amsterdam. There is also a question of energy capacity, in order to ‘decarbonise’ the grid, substantial upgrade work is required globally. This will restrict growth in some locations and so access to power is going to become difficult.

One of the EU Green Deal ‘Fit for 55’ proposals is that each member state compiles a mandatory data centre register, requesting location, energy usage, amount of renewable energy used among other data, while this is merely a proposal, the direct of travel is clear.

The UK government has recently published a report with a similar goal, the registration of public sector data centre assets, which will cover third-party facilities. The question is, what will they do with the data they collect?

Conclusion

The world faces a climate emergency and data centres are a part of the problem, but they are also a part of the solution – just not in their current form. The sector needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask, ‘can we do what we do better? Can we build sustainable data centres? Can we educate our customers better so we can adopt the best practices as contained in the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) and other global standards? Can we play our part in helping the world reach the net zero goals?’

The DCA Sustainability Guide, which is currently in preparation, will provide some pointers as to what we can do to reach the goal of sustainable data centres.

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