sustainable data centre

Building sustainable data centres in 2021

18 January 2021 | Kyle Myers

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There’s no doubt 2021 and the data centre industry will continue to see disruption caused by COVID-19, although many may use the new year to make strides in areas which may have been put on the back burner throughout 2020.

On many sector executives’ agendas will undoubtedly be the challenge of building or operating greener facilities. But how can data centre providers build a more sustainable asset portfolio in 2021?

Data centres require a large amount of energy to remain fully operational 24/7 to run essential IT servers. Additionally, the systems supporting the 24/7 operation generate a large amount of heat, thereby requiring power to keep them cool to prevent damage to the equipment. If the energy supplying a data centre is based on fossil fuels (directly or indirectly), it will result in carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

However, there are a number of approaches that data centre providers can take to address our environmental impacts from energy use, including the associated carbon emissions. At CyrusOne, our approach to reducing our environmental impact through energy and carbon falls under three main strategies: 

  • Our standard design for new buildings incorporates many energy efficiency measures.
  • For existing facilities, we strive to reduce energy and carbon emissions through smart operational practices and facility upgrades.
  • Through strategic site selection and energy procurement, we can increase renewable and low-carbon power sources for our operations. A key part of our strategy is to integrate water and energy metrics to form a more complete picture of our environmental footprint.

Below are some key areas which should be considered when looking to make a data centre operation greener and more sustainable as we look towards a Net Zero future:

Transparent water consumption

Water use is usually “invisible” to energy calculations like PUE, which frequently leads to the trade-off of decreased energy use for increased water consumption. However, we know that water consumption can have huge regional environmental impacts. By reporting energy metrics that reference water use, we can help chart a new course in our industry for increased transparency and hope that others follow suit.

Energy efficiency

Energy consumption makes up nearly all of our carbon footprint. Carbon emissions to the atmosphere are directly linked to climate disruption. As responsible corporate citizens, data centres must recognise the importance of reducing our own carbon footprint in order to contribute to the global effort to mitigate climate change and its associated risks.

Our main target for Energy and Carbon is our Zero Carbon by 2040 commitment. We are still developing the particulars of how we will draw down our carbon emissions while we grow as a company, but we have committed to operating carbon-free by 2040. In this commitment, we include both the carbon emissions from our support infrastructure (cooling, lighting, power handling, etc.) and those of our customers’ IT equipment (servers).

To reach this target, we follow two metrics to understand our energy use efficiency and the resulting carbon emissions: PUE and CUE. While PUE and CUE are the most common measurements of efficiency in the industry, there are some limitations to these metrics, so we recommend data centre providers also track Energy and Carbon Intensity (per square foot). Taken together, these metrics provide a fuller picture of efficiency in any given portfolio.

Building Design

The best opportunity for energy efficiency happens during the initial design of new facilities. Since data centres are built for long lives and reliability, the decisions we make today will set the stage for efficient operations into the future.

By using one standard design for new data centre builds, this can allow energy-saving technologies across the full portfolio and simplifies later upgrades. The three primary strategies that can be used to design efficient data centres are:

  • Minimise data hall heat: The most effective efficiency gains come from improving the efficiency of support equipment inside the data halls. This is because any inefficient equipment not only wastes electricity but also produces excess waste heat which must then be cooled, consuming more electricity.
  • Right cooling, right place, right time: Because colocation data halls host a variety of customers who run a variety of servers, they must be built to be flexible and to remain efficient at a wide range of capacity. This is especially noticeable when a facility is first starting up and customers have yet to finish their server installations.
  • Supplier partnerships: Partner with your equipment suppliers to identify new high-efficiency technologies and to alter equipment specs to support particular design needs, rather than just using “off the shelf” equipment when it’s an imperfect fit.

Energy Procurement

The sources from which we procure energy have a significant impact on our energy and carbon goals. As you build new facilities and as existing energy contracts come to an end, be sure to evaluate renewable energy offerings. Some considerations as you evaluate renewable energy opportunities include meeting customer needs, achieving competitive pricing, reducing carbon intensity, and reducing exposure to market volatility.

Regardless of industry, it’s clear that environmental sustainability has become an indisputable business imperative and something customers are prioritising when it comes to business decisions. Data centres should take an active role in implementing greener solutions, setting tangible goals and sharing results of the steps being taken to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and build energy-efficient operations as standard.

By Kyle Myers, Director of EHSS, CyrusOne