Data centre operators are under pressure to reduce carbon emissions and report their environmental impact but the industry faces huge challenges, writes Nick Gibson.
Data centre operators face new regulation such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the voluntary Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact (CNSCP) that have made environmental impact a top priority for operators, supply chains and data centre designers.
While operators battle to reduce costs, improve performance and meet increasing demand key industry environmental focus now involves energy efficiency, clean energy, water conservation, circular economy and energy systems, e-waste disposal driven by new environmental reporting and audit requirements.
Energy efficiency and security of supply is a number one priority with IT infrastructure high on the agenda for reductions in energy, costs and carbon footprint. “In EMEA alone data centres consume over 90TWh per year with an emissions level equivalent to roughly 5.9 million vehicles (27 million tonnes CO²e),” says Sammy Zoghlami, SVP Nutanix EMEA. “Action here can have a huge impact on climate change but has to be tempered against the need for businesses to compete effectively.”
Transition to sustainability is major challenge as there are over 7.2 million data centres worldwide and the industry is forecast to see annual growth of 13.3% from 2021 to 2028. With such a big task ahead where does a data centre begin on its journey to sustainability?
“We should start with being smarter in the way we build and power digital assets, accelerate the circular economy, increase recycling and refurbishment of devices hardware and equipment,” says Richard Clifford at Keysource. “Around twenty per cent of hardware used by Google and AWS is based on refurbished equipment. We should look at the location of new facilities to ensure they’re close to renewable energy sources. High performance liquid-cooled computing can help reduce heat use and carbon footprint. Large facilities could use excess heat for local distribution to reduce community footprints. Operators are getting smarter in approach, working with local authorities to create more integrated approaches to carbon reduction.”
Energy reduction key to sustainability goals
“Studies show that energy savings of 15- 25 per cent could be achieved by data centres with some able to achieve up to 70 per cent,” says Jodie Eaton, ceo of Shell Energy UK. ”This would need a very radical approach with businesses willing to make fundamental changes to their operations. Typical server room energy bills could be cut by £10,000 – £25,000 per annum. Multiply that by 80,000 (the estimated number of UK server rooms) and you could achieve national savings of several million pounds.”
Roman Khavronenko, ceo of VictoriaMetrics, believes data management is key to energy efficiency and reduction. “To reduce consumption you need to do less work or work more efficiently. Less work could be making smart metres report data every minute or hour instead of every second. Efficiency would be running more efficient software or hardware to do the same job with less energy. By understanding how data flows you can make changes to ensure energy efficiency. Put simply: less RAM use and less CPU use equal less carbon footprint.”
Cooling heat is a major focus but fails to address the root of the problem says Marcin Bala, ceo of Salumanus. “The real problem is heat generation. If you can reduce power consumption you can directly reduce heat output and amount of cooling required. As well as reducing power consumption per device, data centres should find ways to reduce the total number of devices on the network. Switching to next-gen transceivers would deliver a significant reduction in cooling required, deliver a reduction in power consumption and hardware will have a longer usable life and reduce e-waste.”
Sustainable design of data centres is accelerating to address new carbon reduction targets. “Eco-friendly data centre design has been talked about for years but the need for efficiency has increased with soaring energy prices,” says James Petter, vp & gm international at Pure Storage. “Ability to connect to renewably-generated electricity will become a priority that leads site selection criteria for new data centres and refits alike. We’ll see creative ways to use data centre heat, as a renewable energy source or diverted into innovative projects.”
The challenge of regulatory compliance
Data centres are covered by a range of standards and regulations including ISO/IEC 22237 design, build and operate standards; ISO 14001:2015; ISO/IEC 30134 & EN 50600; ISO 30134; EU50600; CSRD and the European Code of Conduct (EU COC) for data centres. The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact (CNSCP) involves 72 operators and 22 associations representing around 90 per cent of European data centres and most recognise the importance of sustainability goals in CSR or ESG reporting. But only 40 per cent of data centre operators currently have a defined plan in place to become climate neutral by 2030.
“In UK there is no guidance, standards or legislation relating directly to data centre sustainability, although the recent Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill requires calculation of embodied carbon for commercial buildings from 2024,” says John Booth vice chair of the green IT specialist group at BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT. “The CCA for data centre operators does record total energy consumption but excludes a major portion of the ICT estate.”
Eaton believes the best option is for UK to adopt the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency). “It details over 150 best practices covering management, IT equipment, cooling, power systems, design, and monitoring of server consumption. Data centres need to measure the energy and cost consumed by their IT estate to gain true visibility. With a PUE baseline you can start to track progress. Implementing best practise may be a challenge for some data centres but there are many credible training organisations available to help.”
Practical steps to carbon reduction
Tony Whittle, head of Enel X UK & Ireland, highlights the use of demand response in energy and carbon reduction. “DR is an effective strategy that incentivises data centres to free up grid capacity when it’s needed most. It also provides a revenue opportunity simply for being available; income to help offset energy costs or invest in further low-carbon measures. Operators are showing leadership on corporate renewable procurement with many looking to buy Power Purchase Agreements that enable data centres to procure long-term renewable energy contracts to help operators move towards decarbonisation targets.”
A Nutanix report highlighting impact of data centre models on energy efficiency and carbon footprint found that automation, innovative cooling systems, renewable energies and transformation of traditional 3-Tier architectures to next-gen models like hyperconverged infrastructures (HCI) will be key to reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint. Compared to traditional 3-tier IT platforms, next-gen HCI architectures could potentially reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint by 27 per cent per year.
Across EMEA HCI transformation has potential to reduce energy consumption by 56.7 TWh and cut emissions by 14.2 million tonnes of CO²e from 2022-2025. By 2025 full changeover to HCI across UK data centres could save 8.1 TWh of energy and 1.8 million tonnes of CO²e, equivalent to taking 400,000 cars off the road.
Large-scale co-location data centres offer a much lower PUE factor than typical on-premise facilities. Switching to HCI architectures could boost energy savings of 30-40 per cent and PPA’s could contribute to climate targets without having to invest in CO2 certificates.
Monitoring with central utility plant technology can maximise buildings’ energy efficiency, reduce carbon emissions and deliver reliable utility services, says David Lloyd, general manager of connected energy performance at Johnson Controls UK&I. “With CUP every major piece of building equipment is tuned into the system to monitor performance and cost and optimise operating efficiency. Buildings using CUP technology enjoy lower tariffs, optimised efficiency and retain a larger utility budget.”
Circular economic sustainability
Data centre sustainability should be part of the circular economy, urges David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres. “It means maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle equipment. Maintain to get more life out of all materials in a data centre so when an asset requires repair refurbished parts are used. Refurbish means ‘deploying equipment twice’, such as decommissioned servers dismantled into separate components, inspected and prepped for use as refurbished inventory. Then reuse parts the customer no longer has use for and redistribute on the secondary market. Last year, 2.1 million units were productively used by other organisations around the world. Finally, the industry must recycle those parts that cannot be reused.”
There is no single solution when it comes to sustainability says Eaton. “Every business will benefit from bringing in expertise to identify steps it can take in both the short and long term to bring energy use under tight control. There is still a huge role that mitigation and reduction can play in preserving competitiveness of the UK data centre industry.”
High energy sectors will be subject to increasing scrutiny and regulatory compliance is key, warns Booth. “Research indicates that energy consumption for ICT in UK could rise to 12 per cent and there’s a major opportunity to reduce this substantially through prudent application of EUCOC (160) best practices. We need to be bold!”
The data centre industry is in a strong position to lead by example in sustainability and the circular economy,” says Watkins. “Operators have customers across most industry verticals so they can see how recycling and reuse of hardware is approached by different sectors, to learn and share best practice. Organisations should commit to sharing knowledge on the circular economy with customers and partners, encouraging future adoption and highlighting benefits of the sustainable approach.”