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Vertiv and GlobalData warn of data centre environmental ‘crunch point’

Karsten Winther Vertiv.jpg

Data centre design and infrastructure company Vertiv has issued a warning about the challenges the industry is facing from the climate emergency.

The company said today that record-breaking heat waves mean that “extreme heat is taking a major toll on data centre operations and infrastructure”, citing outages and disruptions in the UK, reduced production at power plants in France, and concerns over water usage in drought-affected areas across the world.

Karsten Winther (pictured), president for Vertiv in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), said: “If one thing is clear, it is that we need to be prepared for these extreme weather conditions to become more commonplace, so adapting to this inevitability is crucial.”

His warning comes as analyst company GlobalData issued its own warning to data centre operators, water companies and local authorities, all of which it said are facing pressure as water resources dry up.

David Bicknell, principal analyst in the thematic intelligence team at GlobalData, said: “We have reached an environmental crunch point in the resources needed to run data centres. Switching to water cooling can cut a data centre’s electricity usage, but water is an increasingly scarce resource in drought-stricken parts of Europe and the US.”

He warned that data centre operators “hoping to use 25 litres of drinking water an hour to cool data centres as a cheaper alternative to energy-guzzling refrigeration systems are finding their options running dry”.

Bicknell said: “Cleaning up rain or river water is more expensive for operators and will require an environmental licence. Yet, using that water may itself reduce the nearby water table.”

At Vertiv, Winther said: “Customers are becoming more aware of the challenges that extreme heat, for example, brings and are rightly looking at how they can mitigate the resulting risks when it comes to their data centre operations. Our service teams have proved invaluable in providing the guidance and support required to not only manage the immediate impact, but to discuss with customers how they can plan ahead to build in resiliency moving forward.”

Vertiv suggested that operators should reduce the load on each cooling unit, keeping the refrigerant pressures lower. And they should schedule a regular maintenance plan, with quarterly preventive maintenance.

“The unprecedented temperatures we’re seeing across the globe are putting increased pressure on data centre operators and infrastructure providers, challenging them to maintain reliability and connectivity,” said Steve Madara, vice president for thermal sales at Vertiv.

“Extreme weather events underscore the importance of a robust preventive maintenance and cleaning plan, tailored to the specific conditions of an operator’s region. Data centre operators may need to be prepared for operating expense trade-offs to compensate for oversizing capacity.”

He said: “As an industry, we should look to and learn from regions like the Middle East, Africa and Australia, which have already adapted to high temperatures for much of the year.”

At GlobalData, Bicknell said: “Data centres create relatively few jobs, so it’s no wonder local council members are starting to object to using local land and environmental resources for data centre development. In early 2022, South Dublin County Council [in Ireland] passed a motion to prevent further local data centre development until 2028 as part of its County Development Plan. It’s unlikely to be the last organization to take such a decision.”

Madara said. “It’s clear the status quo won’t carry us into the future. We need to reassess rooftop space planning and design our data centre infrastructures to withstand higher heat loads, rethinking the placement of infrastructure systems in addition to capacity.”

GlobalData’s principal analyst for data centre technologies, Chris Drake, said: “In recent years, so-called hyperscale data centres have managed to achieve high levels of energy efficiency thanks to the use of energy efficient designs, modern cooling systems, and a reliance on renewable energy. However, as existing data centres are expanded and new ones built, often in key hub locations, this puts mounting pressure on finite land, energy and water resources.”

Drake added: “With many parts of the world experiencing prolonged periods of drought and the likelihood of future recurring drought, this will attract growing scrutiny and criticism of the way data centres consume water and encourage pressure for new restrictions to be introduced. Although switching to alternative cooling systems could, in many cases, help address existing pressures, switching to alternative technologies rarely happens overnight.”

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