Dirty energy: are data centres driving demand?

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A group of data centre experts recently highlighted the impact of data centres on the global carbon footprint, in a discussion on climate change at the Data Centre Dynamics conference, held in London. The panel of experts were asked for their views on whether data centre boardrooms are taking climate change seriously.

Andy Lawrence, from the Uptime Institute, believes it is taken seriously in Europe and among consumer facing US companies, such as Microsoft, Equinix and Apple. However, for mid-level companies, especially in the US, there is “still scepticism”. 

“It is not yet a top three concern. However, this is going to change in the next 10 years, as the Millennials start to take political power. There will be much more pressure and legislation, instead of just talk,” commented Lawrence.

He believes that legislation forcing data centres to reuse heat, through district heating, could spread across the globe and a change in attitudes will impact data centre design and operation. 

“The focus will be on climate emergency, rather than climate change being ‘something nice to do something about’,” he commented.

Dave Johnson, Executive Vice President, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric, added that, in 2018, “around 24,000 tW/hrs of electricity were used; data centres accounted for 300 tW/hrs or 1.3% of global electricity consumption. Telcos – another part of the equation – accounted for 400 TW/hrs; the rest, which we term ‘the edge’, accounted for another 500 tW/hrs. Together, this accounts for 5% of electricity usage.” 

He pointed out that demand for electricity is growing rapidly. The figure of 24,000 tW/hrs will increase to 45,000tW/hrs by 2035, with telcos increasing from 400 tW/hrs to 2,000 tW/hrs, with the rollout of 5G.  

“For 2035, we predict 8.5% of electricity would be driven by IT,” commented Johnson. “In terms of power usage, the big data centres are actually quite modest in terms of their growth rate. The bigger issue is the telco sector and the Edge.”

He pointed out that discussion around sustainability also needs to consider the circular economy and the recycling of equipment such as batteries. This becomes a particular issue with the growth of the edge.

“How do you take care of all this ‘stuff’ scattered everywhere? The big data centres are working with governments in relation to sustainability and renewables, but the edge is a much bigger problem,” he continued.

Susanna Kass, Data Centre Advisor to UN Sustainable Development, added: “A UN report showed that data centre global emissions are similar to road transport…If we do not solve the problem, and act like it is business as usual, it will increase by 10%. This is unthinkable.” She pointed out that we need to start to measure the sector’s emissions and power usage, to begin to understand the extent of the problem. 

The panel also discussed the findings of a key report, “The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley”, published by Greenpeace, in 2019.

The report found that, despite significant new investment in renewable generation by utilities in other data centre hot spots – such as Iowa, the dramatic expansion of Virginia’s Data Centre Alley “continues to fuel and increase demand in coal and natural gas”. 

Greenpeace says that power generation in Virginia is dominated by fossil fuels, with less than 5% coming from renewable sources, lagging far behind other regions. 

According to Greenpeace, Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest electricity provider and the primary electric utility for Data Centre Alley, has “strongly resisted any meaningful transition to renewable sources of electricity”, currently representing only 4% of its generation mix, with plans to increase to only slightly over 10% by 2030. 

The Greenpeace report claims: “data centres have become a central piece of Dominion’s growth strategy in Virginia”. Even though five out of Dominion’s largest 20 customers are data centre companies that have committed to becoming 100% renewable, Greenpeace says that: 

“Dominion continues to dramatically expand its reliance on fracked gas as it retires older coal plants, rather than transition to renewables”.

The report argues that Dominion has used rising data centre demand to “justify significant new investments in natural gas supply and generation capacity”, most notably the $7-billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which will deliver fracked gas into Virginia and North Carolina. 

Greenpeace states that, if allowed to go forward, the ACP will “further lock Virginia into a reliance on fracked gas”, taking it in “the opposite direction from where its emissions need to be” to support a carbon pollution pathway in line with 1.5 degrees of warming.

“This is the opposite response to what we want to see,” said Gary Cook, Senior Corporate Campaigner, at Greenpeace.

“We have a concentration of data centre companies driving demand for energy investments that are going in the wrong direction…There is a big opportunity for the data centre companies in Virginia to say this is not what we want,” he continued. 

Cook pointed out that “we are starting to see a response” in other countries – in Amsterdam, for example, there has been a pause, as the government “has decided they need to manage this better”. 

“I think we are going to see more of this, here [the UK],” said Cook. “We need to put the utilities on a pathway that is going to give you the energy solutions that you want,” he concluded. 

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