Sustainability and the data centre: beyond the pipe dream…


    The adoption of sustainable approaches to energy will require a cultural shift but if the data centre sector is to avoid a large increase in carbon footprint, it will need to change. The Green Grid is urging operators to adopt a ‘green mind-set’ and says that Scandinavian projects have shown that this can be more than just a pipe dream. Louise Frampton reports. 

    As the global data centre construction market continues to increase, the Green Grid is urging data centre providers to keep long-term sustainability front of mind when building and maintaining their facilities. The global market for data centre construction is predicted to reach a total value of $73.87bn (£56.61bn) by 2021, according to Technavio.

    Lance Rütimann, vice-president at the Green Grid, warns that this rise will mean that data centre providers can no longer rely solely on fossil fuels to power their facilities. He believes a ‘green’ mind-set must be adopted, requiring a renewed focus on sustainability and a holistic approach to the entire data centre infrastructure.

    Rütimann explains: “This rise in data centre construction is what is to be expected as technology continues to advance; the Internet of Things, social media and digital transformation are all continuing to explode, in turn creating more data that needs to be stored. While fossil fuels were once viewed as an effective resource for powering data centres, this is no longer the case.

    “Data centres now account for 5% of global CO2 emissions and this will only increase if we don’t change our approach. What is more, with limited supplies of fossil fuels, renewable energy is clearly a longer term and more sustainable solution.”

    5G technology

    The Green Grid also warns that while 5G is set to bring a range of benefits to business consumers, it will also increase the capacity to create and transfer more data than ever. Without a more significant move to sustainable practice, there will be a large increase in the carbon footprint of data centres across the world.

    The next generation of mobile networks, 5G, is still in the early stages of development, with no formalised standards in place to define or govern its usage. It will yield a substantial increase in data transfer speeds – for example, currently a full HD movie requires a number of minutes to download over 4G, whereas with 5G it is estimated that this could be accomplished in less than 10 seconds. 5G will also reduce response time from about 50 milliseconds on 4G to about 1 millisecond.

    The amount of data produced will require more bandwidth and storage – increasing the need to focus on sustainability and avoid a massive escalation in the carbon footprint of ICT.

    “When building new data centres – and this applies to existing facilities as well – providers must re-evaluate their sustainability practices, by reviewing how they can make their data centres more energy-efficient and then determining how they can best use renewable energy to power their facilities,” comments Rütimann.

    Roel Castelein, the Green Grid’s EMEA marketing chair, says that enterprise data centres and colocation data centres are increasingly looking at how to lower their energy consumption; however, the bulk of operators are motivated by cost considerations.

    Nevertheless, there are some operators that are willing to look at the whole of their data centre’s long-term sustainability, not just from an energy consumption perspective, but also in terms of how much water is consumed, the carbon footprint, how cool the data centre gets, as well as the life cycle in terms of end of life and waste. “Compared to four years ago, there is a lot more consciousness around this,” he comments.

    Google is an enlightened example of how data centres can tackle the issue of sustainability: “The tech giant made a very rational financial calculation on the explosive growth rate of its data and the amount of energy it would take to store all its data as it continues to grow. The company then actioned two steps,” Rütimann explains.

    “Firstly, it looked at how to make its data infrastructure as well as all of their data networking and data components more energy-efficient. Secondly, the company started buying or sourcing renewable energy to power its data centres. Google has pledged that between 2020 and 2025, all of its operations will be powered by renewable energy. Facebook and Apple have also made similar pledges.”

    Tackling the basics

    While an entirely green approach may not be possible for all, at present, a feasible alternative is to use renewable energy as secondary source of power. However, Castelein points out that there are still too many operators failing to even get the basics right – a surprising number of data centres are still mixing hot and cold air flows, for example, yet the solution is simple and low cost. Adding a few panels to provide hot and cold aisle containment requires very little effort or investment, but this is often overlooked.

    Other more sophisticated approaches are coming to the fore – from the use of complex algorithms and software solutions, to energy efficient technology such as liquid cooling, for example.

    However, Castelein adds that if you want to save energy in heating your house, you simply turn down the heating and put on a sweater. The principle is much the same with data centres, according to Castelein: if you are willing to push up the temperature of the facility, by 2-5 degrees, without affecting operations, you will consume less energy. This still relies on fossil fuel, however, and the Green Grid says that, in the long term, data centres will need to increase the use of clean energy.

    Onsite power generation

    “There are clearly more sustainable ways to design, power and operate data centre facilities. Rather than relying exclusively on unsustainable fossil fuel energies, providers should follow the same suit as the larger hyperscalers and adopt renewable energy sources to power their data centres,” comments Rütimann.

    Although there is increased interest in innovative approaches to onsite power generation, Castelein highlights a need for educating the market further. He points out that, within the retail industry, there have been some innovative business models that the data centre sector could learn from. For example, a medium-sized retailer based in Belgium established its own green energy company – firstly to supply its stores with renewable energy but also to sell energy to others in the long term.

    “The retail industry is very tough with low margins. If they can do it, anyone can do it,” says Castelein.

    Governments could also have a greater role in incentivising uptake of renewables in the data centre market, he believes. Indeed, some geographies are leading the way in the development of sustainable investment.

    The Scandinavian data centre sector, for example, has been a pioneer in the use of renewable technology and sustainability, leading the way for others. Governments in the region have wanted to attract inward investment but the local communities have also benefitted at the same time. For example, a huge data centre has been built in Finland that uses heat recovery to provide free heating for the town’s residents during the country’s harsh winters.

    “They actually made it happen. It wasn’t just a pipe dream,” says Castelein.

    Ultimately, the biggest barrier to increased adoption of renewable energy, he believes, is cultural – there is a fear of change. “Operators need to stop thinking about it and just do it,” he concludes.


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