Sustainable data centres

09 December 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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Long established as critical infrastructure, data centres are only becoming more important. But how can their ongoing exponential growth, occur in a future where, by necessity, major economies must decarbonise? Melanie Mingas finds out

Around the world major economies are implementing long term sustainability goals that will see national grids reconfigured, industries revolutionised and hundreds of thousands of jobs created. It’s a future that has been given the hard sell over recent months with Japan, Spain and China just some of the nations to have announced carbon neutrality targets for the coming decades.

Nonetheless, as clichéd as it sounds, the future of life on this planet — in all its forms — depends on everybody achieving those goals.

In tandem another trend has gained pace in 2020: digitalisation. There’s no need for the preamble, but it’s worth highlighting that, regardless of how energy efficient 5G is at the network level, the next generation of ICT capability will come with higher capacity demands and a higher dependence on data centres than ever before. As the critical infrastructure that sits at the nexus of those two trends, the sustainable data centre is about to come into its own.

Swedish researcher and author Anders Andrae calculates that, in a worst-case scenario, data centres could account for 7% of global electricity demand by 2030 — exactly one third of the demand projected for the entire ICT industry.

“The data centres in operation are using a massive amount of electricity and there are more and more being built. It’s a sector we need to get our heads around if we want to make an impact and meet some of these climate goals,” says Corey Enck, VP of LEED technical development for the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

“One of the positives we have seen has been the leadership from some of the larger tech companies, in terms of the goals they have made around carbon. One of the things we have seen from those large companies has been not only trying to create the most efficient data centre possible, but it’s really a major focus of renewable energy as well and that is a key component that we need to emphasise,” Enck continues.

Proving the claims

Hundreds of the industry’s household names operate LEED accredited data centres: Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple among them. Equinix opened the UK’s first LEED Gold accredited data centre, the US$79 million LD6, in 2015 and other early pioneers have included IBM, Global Switch and Cisco.

Synonymous with greening the built environment, the very first LEED accreditations date back to 2000. “LEED is generally a rating system that is trying to push projects to do better than the industry average,” explains Enk. In the 20 years since, dedicated ratings systems and benchmarks have been developed for everything from hospitals to warehouses.

The development of specific data centre ratings started in 2009. The first standards were released in 2013 and in 2019 LEED version 4.1 was made available for all project types. With 329 LEED-certified data centres and 378 facilities registered today, it’s a fraction of the total global stock. However, Enck reports steady growth in the number of operators looking to verify their green credentials over the last five years.

“I think the industry is trying to do as much as it can to make data centres as efficient as possible. The actual buildings themselves have become much more efficient through design strategies and that has been very good to see,” Enck says.

“One of the next frontiers of data centre design is probably in the actual IT equipment itself in the buildings. One of the areas where LEED as a standard has gone further than other data centre standards is in the fact it assesses the holistic energy performance of the facility, not just the HVAC or the cooling efficiency of the building itself,” Enck continues.

Today, the system is comprehensive enough for Enck and his colleagues to home in on specific gaps that exist across the industry. For example, looking at the colocation business model, USGBC is exploring methods to prevent excessive energy costs being disguised and passed to the customer, rather than tackled and reduced at the source.

Enck explains: “We know there are many colocated data centres where there is a potential disconnect between the owner providing the building and having somebody else rent out the space, so they are not necessarily responsible for the efficiency of the system themselves.

“We have been trying to provide a better incentive structure for colocation owners to provide more efficient equipment, instead of providing standard equipment and passing the costs along to the customers renting that data centre space.”

Meeting demand

Digital Realty Trust has been gaining LEED accreditations since before LEED for data centres was published. In 2009, it opened a new Silicon Valley facility — occupied by Nvidia — that could save approximately 3.5 million kilowatt hours of energy every year by drawing air from outside for cooling.

Called airside economisation, it enabled the building to draw 100% outside air — a feature that could be used 65% of the year, based on local weather trends at the time of design. At 2009 prices it was capable of saving $250,000 in energy costs annually.

“Our focus on sustainability is largely a result of two things: understanding our customers’ growing needs and wants, and  as having an in-depth knowledge of the industry we operate in and the direction it’s headed,” says Aaron Binkley, senior director of sustainability for Digital Realty, which earlier this year joined forces with Interxion.

In 2019 alone the company added five newly-developed LEED and BREEAM certified data centres to its portfolio across four global markets, and energy for both the US colocation arm and EMEA portfolio is 100% renewably sourced. “Like our use of dock water cooling to reduce energy and water consumption at our Digital Docklands site in London,” Binkley explains.

The company is also the largest REIT industry issuer of green bonds, with €2.5 billion issued in total to date, and proceeds allocated to its new green projects.

“If you were to rewind 10 years, you’d struggle to find a data centre provider even talking about sustainability publicly, let alone setting targets. So, I think it’s fair to say that the industry as a whole has come a long way on its sustainability journey,” Binkley says.

“A lot of sustainability-driven initiatives and innovations within the data centre industry have stemmed from customers. As demand increases, the imperative to source renewable energy to power our data centres is becoming more widespread.

“Put simply, data centres will become bigger and more powerful, and, paradoxically, the industry will also become greener,” he adds.

The customer is an increasingly crucial part of the equation, whether in the B2B or B2C domains. In November, EY published new research on sustainable TMT, demonstrating the ability to operate with minimal impact is now an issue that can influence the longevity of the business itself.

EY reported 80% of customers prefer to see TMT companies taking immediate action rather than providing “long-term promises”. Elsewhere, 56% said they would be willing to pay slightly more for environmentally sustainable TMT products and services. With the XaaS model gaining pace at a rapid rate, such trends demand a second look.

“Companies simply must put this challenge at the top of their agenda, otherwise they risk failing to connect properly with their customers and will ultimately put themselves at a competitive disadvantage,” says Adrian Baschnonga, global lead telecommunications analyst for EY. “For data centres specifically, there are a number of levers that can accelerate sustainability, from prioritising renewable energy sources to optimising energy efficiency and repurposing excess heat,” Baschnonga continues.

He adds: “Looking ahead, it is vital that the data centre community reacts to growing customer and stakeholder awareness.”

Towards a sustainable future

The inconvenient truth is that by their very nature data centres are unavoidably energy intensive and utility reduction alone falls short of what is needed in the long term.

However, the technology exists — and more is emerging — to generate excess renewable energy and feed it back to the local grid, greening surrounding communities.

While it may use more energy than the state of Hawaii, Google has been making good on its power needs since 2007 when it officially declared itself carbon neutral. Today, as the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, Google is one of these early pioneers also putting green energy back on the grid, as well as working with local authorities and infrastructure providers to develop renewable energy sources in places where such provision is non-existent.
In locations where it isn’t possible to run renewable, the impact is offset elsewhere.

Speaking at Cloud Next 19, Joe Kava, Google’s VP of data centres, said: “It’s a long-term goal. It’s arguably a moon-shot — typical Google thinking — but in order to take accountability for our footprint, this is what we have to do.”

The work ahead is extensive and will call on stakeholders from across the data centre, tech and energy industries to work together to rapidly advance current capabilities.

Noting that the urgency to act is “huge”, Enck explains that making such a commitment elsewhere is one way to support overall decarbonisation and, while the efficiency of the facility itself can always be improved, it is the use and development of renewable energy solutions that will bridge the sustainability gap in the interim.

“What that does from my perspective is green the grid — whether it’s in the same location as the data centre or elsewhere — those massive investments in renewables are starting to bring the rest of the country closer to having a lower carbon electricity supply, which is helpful,” Enck says.

“These things need to be done in combination. Trying to squeeze out as much efficiency from the data centre as possible, from the equipment, from load reductions, but also how can we add as much low carbon energy onto the grid as is possible,” he adds.