Homes of data: Are data centers ruining or running the planet?

Homes of data: Are data centers ruining or running the planet?

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Today many people don’t know whether to consider data centres a friend or foe. Despite their unrivalled technological benefits, many are concerned that data centres, like other energy-intensive industries, are playing a large role in the planet’s rising emissions - and even take some accountability for energy security struggles.

As large consumers of power, data centres account for approximately 1% of global electricity usage and between 3-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2025, the sector is set for a 50% increase in its electrical footprint, pushing its energy requirements higher.

For instance, in Ireland, data centres are said to consume more electricity than rural homes. Yet, although data centre demand is growing, with revenue expected to show an annual growth rate of 4.66%, resulting in a market volume of over $410 billion by 2027, the average annual power usage effectiveness (PUE) has improved from 2.5 in 2007 to 1.55 in 2022, signaling a significantly sustainable growth.

Due to its electrical footprint, however, data centres have been seen as harmful to the environment, and with the threat of rolling blackouts, as a major challenge to energy security. The sectors’ problems are well known, however, there is little appreciation of its benefits, specifically the role of data centres in helping to fix the planet, being part of the solution, rather than damaging it.

The understanding of data centres is limited

Despite the environmental and energy challenges that data centres present, they’re vital to support our day-to-day lives. As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we are constantly generating and consuming data, both intentionally and unintentionally, through our interactions with technology, social media, and other digital sources. No-one wants to stop watching Netflix, ordering through Amazon, or streaming music on Spotify – and data centres are essential to enable not only these activities at speed.

Moreover, the value of data centres extends far beyond streaming. In other sectors, such as healthcare or education, data centres play a vital role in innovation: Educators can use data to personalise students learning experiences, whilst medical researchers use large quantities of data to develop new treatments and therapies.

For instance, the Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world-leader in genomic research and DNA sequencing that uses the power of data centres to improve human health outcomes in cancer, malaria, and other pathogens, including Covid-19. The volume and velocity of data from its groundbreaking research relies on localised processing power from Europe’s largest genomic data centre.

For me personally, I use data every day to track my fitness goals, manage my finances, make purchases, and plan my routine, as well as making informed decisions on business strategies. Data is at the centre of our lives, and without us realising, it keeps them running with ease and without disruption.

Changing the perception of data centres

Data centres are today battling misconceptions of what they are, why they’re important, and how they impact the environment. Data consumption, for example, is fueling data centre demand which creates a self-perpetuating cycle for the sectors sustainability challenge.

Importantly, digitisation and the convergence with renewable electricity will be catalysts for a net-zero future, not the reason for its downfall. Without data centres, we wouldn’t have the capacity or ability to process sustainability data at scale, and power innovative improvements.

To create a green, sustainable future for the data centre sector we must improve how they are designed, built, powered, and operated. This requires the industry’s leadership to focus on sustainable change, harnessing the power of hardware, software, and automation to ingrain sustainability in every aspect of the lifecycle.

Today a great example of this is Start Campus in Portugal which is building Portugal’s largest hyperscale data centre campus, and a new sustainable technological hub for the region. Start Campus creates its own energy, reducing the strain on the grid by generating renewable power via solar and hydro capabilities.

The company is working to repurpose existing energy grid facilities, using water from the ocean to provide an innovative cooling solution - a shining example of sustainable innovation in-action and how data centres can play a positive role in the climate change challenge.

Furthermore, Start Campus is today a Project of National Interest (PIN) working with the local community to address biodiversity issues and support the economy. It will have a positive impact on nearby communities, generating an estimated 8,000 highly skilled jobs by 2028.

An explosion of data: how to sustain an ever-growing IT capacity?

Digitalisation remains an important driver of growth and innovation in Europe. Due to the growth of the internet, the rise of new technologies and the proliferation of connected devices, European economies have become increasingly based on digital technologies and services – and therefore, data.

By 2025, the volume of data created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide is expected to hit 181 zettabytes, more than quadruple the level recorded in 2019.

Investment in the digital economy continues to boost economic growth and innovation, create jobs, and unlocks a competitive advantage for European businesses. As the economy digitalises and data boom continues, it requires increased IT capacity in secure, connected, and manageable infrastructures. Ultimately, data is the automation of our activity and behaviors, so the management of it is critical to enable growth.

The solution to this is more advanced software, where the end-to-end digitisation of data centres can help streamline operations, improve efficiency, and reduce costs. This level of digitisation also helps to curb carbon emissions, allowing data centre decision-makers to monitor energy consumption and water usage more closely and identify areas for improvement.

Using software solutions to digitise the lifecycle helps to improve speed, accuracy, and sustainability. Through automation and -especially- data analytics, data centre leaders can create sites that have efficiency and sustainability at their core. Data centres will always have a high energy consumption, but only by driving more digitisation will we be able to decarbonise our grid.

Personally, I believe data centres play an integral role in running the planet and will be pivotal in helping us curb the negative effects of climate change. By using the insights gathered from data and digitisation in a more efficient way, we can drive new behaviors for the good of the world. In many respects the role of data centres is far from ruining the planet, instead they can and will act as a catalyst for sustainable change.

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