A playbook for purposeful data centre sustainability efforts.

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Today, there are more than 18 million servers running in more than 2,500 data centres all across the globe to support our increasingly digital lives — and those numbers will only continue to climb. Over the last years, we’ve seen unprecedented growth in the demand for digital services, including e-commerce, artificial intelligence, streaming video, VR/AR applications, smart systems and Big Data analytics. The blurred lines between the physical and digital worlds have made the case that data centres have become as essential as public utilities such as electricity, gas and water.

Data centres hold a critical place in our society, whether it’s supporting our economy or enabling our workforce, but we cannot ignore their impact on resource consumption and energy use. For data centre operators, owners and designers looking to reduce their carbon footprint or set higher efficiency and sustainability goals, Vertiv launched its Data Centre Guide to Sustainability, which offers a number of best practices, business cases for reducing environmental impact and emerging technologies to help the industry advance toward “net-zero” operations. Below are some of the highlights from the guide.

Creating Stronger Sustainability Goals

Data centres consumed between 200 and 250 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity in 2020, or nearly 1% of global electricity demand, and contributed 0.3% of all global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. These numbers surrounding data centre consumption have drawn concerns from both industry stakeholders and the general public.

Many data centre owners and operators have already put the wheels in motion to improve efficiency and sustainability, but the work is far from over. Leading the charge for this industry-wide movement are the large hyperscalers who have set ambitious goals to become carbon neutral or carbon negative. Apple and Google Cloud have achieved net zero carbon, Amazon intends to do so by 2040, and Microsoft intends to become carbon negative by 2030. In China, technology companies Chindata, Alibaba, Tencent, GDS, and Baidu are all making progress on reducing carbon from data centre operations.

The skyrocketing demand for data centre capacity and increased technology dependence pose a difficult challenge for organisations trying to reduce emissions, but the benefits of doing so are well worth the effort. By implementing technologies and strategies for reducing environmental impact, organisations can lower operating costs, increase financial flexibility and reduce the risk of having stranded or obsolete assets.

Innovations for Data Centre Efficiency

Over the past decade, a number of innovations have entered the fold to help data centre operators increase asset utilisation, maximize efficiency and reduce emissions and waste. Here is an overview of some of those technologies:

· Intelligent Power Management

Intelligent equipment and new controls enable data centre operators to improve the utilisation and efficiency of the critical power systems required to achieve high levels of data centre availability. One strategy we’re seeing is utilising the overload capacity designed into some UPS systems to handle short and infrequent demand peaks rather than oversizing equipment based on these peaks.

· Renewable Energy

Renewable energy can be a great tool for reducing carbon emissions. There are numerous ways to leverage renewable sources, including purchase plan agreements, renewable energy certificates and migrating loads to cloud or colocation facilities that have made the commitment to carbon-free operation. Some operators are looking at opportunities to power data centres through locally generated renewable power, which can be accomplished by matching renewable energy sources with fuel cells, systems that can produce clean hydrogen from renewable energy and UPS systems with dynamic grid support capabilities.

· Water and Energy-Efficient Thermal Management

Thermal management systems are typically the largest contributor to data centre power usage effectiveness (PUE), so there has been a concerted effort to drive down their impact on PUE by using more energy-efficient technologies. We’ve seen an increase in the use of water-based cooling systems that improve efficiency by expanding the number of hours the system can operate in freecooling mode. Chilled water freecooling systems help strike a balance between water utilisation and energy efficiency, but for areas where access to water is limited, a water-free direct expansion (DX) system can be employed.

A Framework for Data Centre Sustainability

For organisations in the initial stages of planning long-term efficiency and sustainability goals, beginning such a journey can be daunting. Vertiv’s guide offers valuable first steps for reducing environmental impact, including:

· Establishing Goals

Similar to the previously mentioned hyperscalers, more data centre operators are embracing goals based on the vision of the net-zero data centre or adopting several of the pillars that make up that vision. According to Vertiv’s guide, a net-zero data centre typically encompasses:

  • Zero losses: Eliminating inefficiencies and maximising utilisation in data centre systems.
  • Zero carbon: Eliminating carbon emissions from the power consumed by data centres.
  • Zero waste: Eliminating the e-waste created by data centre operations.
  • Defining Frameworks and Metrics

When establishing measurable goals for reducing environmental impact, emissions will often be the primary target. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides standardised global frameworks that industry organisations and their value chain partners can use to understand, aggregate, quantify and reduce emissions. Other metrics to track sustainability goals include airflow efficiency, air economiser utilisation factor, carbon dioxide savings and carbon usage effectiveness.

· Prioritising Opportunities

Organisations looking to build out their sustainability approach can begin by evaluating existing data centre systems and prioritising opportunities based on goals and available technologies. As plans move forward, operators should continue to focus on solutions that can achieve desired levels of continuity. Some priorities to consider include increasing asset utilisation, reusing data centre heat and reducing e-waste.

There is no uniform approach or single solution to reduce a data centre’s environmental impact. Organisations should look to take advantage of the available opportunities and resources, and their reduced impact will depend on their goals, budgets, existing technologies and many other factors. Making these changes will be a huge challenge, but the reduced costs, progress toward corporate goals and limited dependence on utilities from these initiatives creates significant long-term value.

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Simon Brady

Services Channel Business Development Manager EMEA for Vertiv