Why data centres are crucial to tackle net zero

Marc Garner, VP secure power division and major pursuits team, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland explains how data centres are becoming a key part of the solution to the energy crisis

Today there is a growing energy crisis across Ireland. Data centres have been positioned as large consumers of power, causing potential disruption to consumer supply amid warnings of blackouts.

Yet to tackle the problems in energy generation and supply, we must face up to the realities of the situation. Firstly, aging grids have failed to develop in line with demand or sustainability ambitions – meaning that demand for renewable energy now outweighs supply, with the onus placed on large consumers as the problem. 

Secondly, questions are, rightly, being raised around the environmental impact of the sector, its energy requirements, and its emissions. Analyses vary, but data centres are predicted to use around one to two per cent of total global electricity consumption.

The truth, however, is that data centres are becoming a key part of the solution to the energy crisis, and they will likely serve as a net zero template for other industries. Ahead of COP27 we must begin to realise that we cannot address the impacts of climate change without data, digitisation, and technology, and we can’t act upon the data without data centres.

To understand why data centres have been singled out amid the energy crisis, it is necessary to look at recent developments. Around both Dublin and London, there have been significant data centre developments in the last decade, often in key districts where power, connectivity, and water, are in abundance.

Energy constraints have led both cities to take action on supplies, and in Ireland, South Dublin County Council brought in a ban on new data centre connections, only for the government to order its reverse a short time later. Similarly, Ealing in west London was one of three boroughs to pause developments due to energy constraints.

Data centres, however, are now entering a new era on two fronts. The climate change imperative is firstly driving rapid decarbonisation across the industry. More organisations are looking to reduce scope II emissions by transitioning to renewable energy sources (RES) and driving efficiencies within their critical infrastructure. Secondly, operators are moving from consumers to prosumers, seeking a viable means to generate green, electrical energy by building in electrical generation capabilities.

This allows said operators to reduce reliance on the grid, or become entirely self-sufficient, with some creating microgrids in conjunction with on-site generation capabilities – be it hydro, solar, wind, or biofuels. Microgrids, for example, offer many benefits, including the ability to increase resilience, reduce costs and improve sustainability. This decentralised energy approach will be vital to ease demand and facilitate a faster transition to RES.

While positive, the move to renewables alone is not enough to reduce the industry’s environmental impact or accelerate the transition to a low carbon future. Innovation in energy efficient technologies, combined with greater digitisation, decarbonisation of the supply chain and strategies to modernise outdated infrastructure will prove vital.

Measurement will also be essential, and the industry must define and agree upon a set of standardised sustainability metrics as it seeks to make progress. Furthermore, by harnessing the power of digitization and electrification, the sector can identify new ways of distributing, seeing, and saving energy.

Looking forward, the data centres of the future must be resilient, adaptive, sustainable, and efficient, but only by harnessing the power of renewables, technology and data, and driving ecosystem collaboration, can our industry become part of the solution.  

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