Data Centers and Sustainability: Navigating the Energy Challenge for a Greener Future

The data centre community, with its immense energy demands, is at the forefront of this challenge. To shed light on this pressing issue, Digital Infra Network sat down for an exclusive interview with Marc Garner, Senior VP at Schneider Electric. Addressing a range of topics, the discussion delved into how the data centre industry is tackling sustainability head-on, how renewable energy fits into the equation, the growing significance of microgrids, the impact of increasing compute density on efficiency measures, and the quest for the most suitable metric to gauge sustainable performance. Garner’s insights offer a compelling glimpse into the strategies and innovations that are shaping the future of data centres amid the pursuit of a greener and more sustainable tomorrow.

Sustainability is becoming more and more important across all industrial sectors. How is
the data centre community facing up to this challenge?

Ultimately a lot of what happens within the electrical infrastructure of our industry, 70 percent of all the energy we use across Europe today, is still produced by fossil fuels. We havethis unclean carbon output fossil fuel-led production capacity, and we are heavily reliant onthat on that fuel. That is the biggest carbon reduction challenge as a global community, leaving data centres aside for a moment. It is an energy problem, with 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from energy. If we can address the energy piece, we can address the sustainability piece.

How would you answer the people that say our energy is clean? It comes from renewable
resources, so energy efficiency is a financial issue driven by the high energy cost.

There is indeed an element of it. In the UK, 97 per cent of the energy that Schneider Electric use is clean, green energy. Some of its self-production with solar farms on our facilities, and some of it is through buying credits. Now, ultimately, we have got to do something about that 70 per cent of European energy that needs to be cleaner. There are two sides to that question. Forty per cent of those improvements we can make are in change management; how do we change from fossil fuels to green energy? How do
we move into a more distributed energy system rather than a linear, centralised one? What we start to see change at the moment is where we can source our energy from. This is very different; you have the power station, the wind farm, the solar farm, and various other additional options that are also coming into the market. We are starting to see this decentralisation, with less of a linear approach to where we get energy.
The next step, which is already starting to happen now, is this prosumer model where we all become producers of energy and consumers of energy. I do not have solid solar panels on my roof yet, but at some point, we will do at which point I will be using some of that energy in my house; hopefully, I will be producing enough a bit that I can feed back onto the grid as well and start to support other businesses and people who do not have that facility. So you’ve got this decentralised grid now where you have power from multiple locations, a microgrid that has not existed before.

Microgrids are the buzzword whenever you talk to an energy manager at an industrial
facility. Is that a trend that is driving change?

It is a key part of it. If you consider a data centre an excellent example, most data centres
will have on-site generation through solar, wind turbines or generators. Most of them are
reliant on fossil fuels. So there is still that element to it, but because they have an
embedded carbon footprint does not mean we should lose that generation capacity. Within
a data centre, you have almost got a microgrid already. You have the traditional feed from
the grid, you have got generators, you have got on-site, renewable generation, and perhaps
some generation coming in from renewables off-site as well. Most of our data centres are
already a true microgrid; the question now is how to use some of that to feed back into the
network to support peak time shedding of the network and other aspects of it.

Such an ideological situation would then turn data centres into a grid resource rather than
a grid burden, but from what I can see, we are some way from that. 
How it all comes together, and I have spoken about this before, but as we start to bring all
of this online, this new electric world where we have multiple generation sources, you need
digitalisation to make it work. You need data, artificial intelligence, and a system within the
system to make sure that all these technologies are connected, all of them are talking to
each other, and they all operate at the right time in the right place. This is where data
centres become part of the solution rather than the burden as they are positioned now. But
the reality is that data centres only represent one per cent of all the energy consumption
worldwide. True, one per cent is a significant number for a fairly small industry, but it is not
the catalyst that will make a substantial change. Now it will grow because our reliance on
data as a human race is significant.

Quantifying exactly what power a data centre uses is difficult. Every time we suggest a
certain figure, there is pushback, and many disparate statistics are out there.
For sure, it varies from country to country. It would be best if you also looked at the
distributed IT infrastructure, which we probably miss within that one per cent. It will grow,
and the carbon emission from data centres will be between three and four per cent. But
digitalisation is important because we need the data to start driving improvement across
industry, for autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles and how we build infrastructure across

our cities to drive greater efficiency and operational efficiency. The data-led discussion is
critical, and you need the data centres. This is a message that, as an industry, we are not
talking about enough. The value that we bring into society today and into how we can
support the sustainability agenda is a topic that is worthy of discussion and more
prominence within the media.

Data is a double edge sword. True data is crucial to improving energy efficiency and
sustainability, but also the rise of artificial intelligence is creating so much more data than
we had before.
The AI piece is something that I am interested in, but I do not have a huge amount of
background to talk competently about it. However, I was in Copenhagen at a data centre
industry event
 earlier in the week, and one presenter spoke about the use of artificial
intelligence and ChatGPT. One of the things she presented was a video of what they have
done in Ukraine. They have turned everyone’s mobile phone into a 3D rendering machine to
protect all the art and statues they have all over the city. Every person was taking photos
and 3D renders of all this infrastructure in case it was lost during the bombing. It is
fascinating to see the speed and direction AI is going and its power in some of these spaces.

The AVEVA Unified Operations Centre is a prime example of data effectively improving
sustainable performance. Please tell us a bit about this.
The AVEVA Unified Operations Centre offers a broad view of process and infrastructure
operations with the ability to combine information from many different sources into a single
graphical environment for enterprise visualisation. With a centralised view helping to make
informed decisions, your teams are provided with an enhanced layer of intelligence where
data works in service to organisational goals to guide strategic and operational activities
from end to end.
It is a fascinating piece that shows how powerful data is in this operational efficiency model
going forward. We talk a lot about the tangible element of it, how much energy has been
produced by a data centre and how much has been consumed by a data centre and then the
drain on society. The other aspect for me is how data and the centres that support it drive
efficiency. We show a demonstration of a wind farm with one of the turbines stopped
working. Part of the conversation needs to be around well; previously, you just put someone

on a boat to go over there, look, and discover that the transformer is not working properly.
They would need to return to the base to get a spare part. This can now all be done in one
trip, and a subsequent carbon benefit comes on the back of it. This is only possible with the
data centre industry supporting that infrastructure. It is a fascinating topic that is not talked
about enough and considered enough when we talk about the sustainability aspect of data
centres and the knock-on effect of it.

Data centre compute is getting denser, so how does that influence what you are trying to
do to measure and improve efficiency
It does, and I think this is the other side of the coin. You have your supply piece, but then
there is the operational efficiency piece, and at a fundamental level, what the bricks that go
into a data centre, the liquid cooling or the UPS, we have to drive greater efficiency within
those products as a vendor into the market. We must do more in that space, and that is
where all our R&D goes. Almost everything we bring to market now has a green premium
badge. So it has a product environmental profile that allows you to track the embedded
carbon in that product. It is a Schneider system that we created over a decade ago.

We always say that measuring is the first step. At present, the data centre industry still
uses PUE. Is that the best metric to measure sustainable performance?

It is a metric. Is it the most effective metric? No, because it does not incorporate everything
from a building perspective. It is the metric we have at the moment. It gives us some
indication of what has been improved and how it is moving forward. Start says their campus
will be just 1.15 when they are complete. That is a massive leap forward from where we
were, and a huge amount of efficiency has been designed into the build process. It is a good
metric because we can see that improvements have been made. Is it the right metric for
measuring our sustainability performance? Probably not. Because it does not incorporate
enough, it measures how inefficient you are rather than the efficiency you are driving into it.
We need to integrate other things, such as the building control side of it; it cannot just be
power usage. There are other aspects to consider in a sustainability conversation.

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