Reaping the rewards of a green data centre strategy

David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres

This year, perhaps more than ever, digital technology is powering the way we live and work – with wired and wireless digital connectivity a fundamental component of delivering services like education and health provision. But the need to store, process and access an explosion in digital data comes with increasing environmental concerns. Recent reports predict that the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2 per cent of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 20251 and they could consume no less than a fifth of global electricity. By 2040, storing digital data is likely to create 14 per cent of the world’s emissions, around the same proportion as the US does today.

So, how are the builders of the digital infrastructure ensuring that their construction and management strategies are green? And how can organisations ensure their data centre partners are committed to environmentally sound practices?

Recognising industry progress

Whilst it’s vital that the topic of data centre efficiency is debated and discussed, it must be recognised that the industry has made strides from the legacy data centres of years past.

While consuming large volumes of energy, it’s still more efficient to centralise IT resources in modern data centres than relying on on-premise storage solutions. Additionally, data centres are becoming increasingly environmentally sympathetic, with some providers able to boast impressive green credentials.

Providers have found new ways to power their data centres with renewable energy sources such as hydro, solar, geothermal, and wind. More efficient technologies have also been developed to decrease data centre power consumption, and innovations such as the re-use of waste heat are helping decrease the environmental impact of data centres.

A holistic approach to construction and management

The most committed data centre providers build environmentally sound steps into every aspect of construction and maintenance.

When it comes to building facilities, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards look at the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying their performance and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology. Each of these categories addresses the most influential factors, including low impact design and carbon emissions reduction; design durability and resilience; adaption to climate change; and ecological value and biodiversity protection. As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation, and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).

Looking at plant management, there are now many technologies and methodologies which can be deployed to drive efficiency. Examples of this include highly efficient UPS (uninterruptable power supplies), where unused capacity can ‘hibernate’ to reduce electrical losses. CRAC (computer room air conditioning) units are typically equipped with variable speed fans, that will regulate in line with demand to reduce energy consumption. Pumps are equipped with variable speed drives, that again will regulate in line with demand to reduce consumption. And, chillers often have “free cooling” functionality, where within certain temperature ranges cooling can be provided at a much lower cost. Ground and air source heat pumps are also being deployed, along with local energy generation all making use of clean, naturally available resources.

The myth that “green” = “expensive”

For many in the technology industries, “green” has historically meant “expensive”. But this preconception is simply no longer true. As green technologies develop and become more prevalent, demand will drive down price, making it much more affordable to be environmentally aware.

Reports show that infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16 per cent since 2014, demonstrating that where steps are taken to improve issues like heating and cooling, cost savings can be made. The same is true when it comes to energy. In recent years the cost of hydrogen fuel cells has plummeted, to the point where they are now an economically viable alternative for standby generation. And more widely, the cost of renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels2. Indeed, on average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power costs less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and power purchase and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.

In addition, green measures are supported by a number of governments around the world offering tax incentives to invest in environmentally conscious technology, in order to support carbon reduction targets at a national level. 

Most providers should ultimately pass these cost savings on to the end user – the organisations who use data centre partners to store and process the vast amounts of digital information that keeps them running.

Looking for a sustainable data centre partner, with a demonstrated commitment to the green agenda is not just the right thing to do, it is increasingly what customers are demanding, and can actually deliver significant commercial benefits.

The clearest return on investment for companies who invest in sustainability strategies is in cost savings, but more broadly, helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies aren’t negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of fuelling a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is not only crucial for addressing short term concerns like COVID-19, but is likely to help reduce pollution significantly in the long run too.

1 https://www.computerworld.com/article/3431148/why-data-centres-are-the-new-frontier-in-the-fight-against-climate-change.html

2 Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019