Sustainable Data Centres: Three Key Considerations

Data centres play an invaluable role in today’s society, enabling low latency connectivity and meeting surging demands for data for organisations around the world, with the need for new ones not likely to decrease any time soon. Gartner forecasts, worldwide IT spending on data centre systems will grow 5.5% year-on-year to $218.6bn in 2022.

With this, it is vital that data centre providers and customers build with sustainability in mind. David Ferdman, our president and CEO put it well when he said, “the success and health of all our human and technological networks depends on a resilient environment – a world with ample water and habitat to supply the needs of both humans and wildlife, and where the effects of climate change are minimised.” It goes without saying that if we don’t embrace a sustainable future, we won’t have a future to sustain at all.

Building a strategy for sustainable data centres is not easy, but there is internationally recognised guidance to help guide sustainable data centre strategy. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlight three key considerations vendors and customers should keep in mind – water, energy and biodiversity.

Conserving Water

UN SDG Target 6.4: By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

Many data centres rely on water to keep them cool, but in areas where water is in short supply and high demand, it is important to ensure there is enough for local communities as well as to keep data centres operational. This is important from both a moral and business perspective, as facilities that depend too much on water risk interruptions to operations, or costly retrofitting to install other forms of non-water intensive cooling.

Data centre providers can work towards this SDG target by developing data centres that use water-free cooling and sites that restore water to local ecosystems, making their presence a net benefit to watersheds in the area. In 2021, professionals at a data centre in Chandler, an extremely water-stressed area in Phoenix, Arizona, significantly reduced the facility’s water intake by cooling using very small amounts for humidification, facility maintenance and domestic water. They also worked with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Arizona Land and Water Trust to restore 40% more water to local water flows than in 2019.

Improving Energy Efficiency

UN SDG Target 7.3: By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency

Unsurprisingly, data centres require far more energy per square foot than most other buildings, especially the data halls used to contain the server cabinets themselves which draw large amounts of power. Data centre providers can improve energy efficiency by combining the computing power of many smaller data rooms into fewer larger data centres, deploying smart operational practices and designing new sites that incorporate energy efficient measures, and work towards certifications such as LEED or BREEAM to help achieve ESG goals. In fact, a new data centre in Madrid, Spain is set to be the first in the country to be built under the BREEAM Data Centres International accreditation.

They can also use computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modelling to simulate the flow of chilled air and adjust fan speed and chiller load. At a facility in Northern Virginia, engineers expect the changes made based on their CFD data analysis to save more than 10 million kilowatt hours each year.

What’s more, they can increase renewable and low-carbon power sources for operations such as solar and wind. For example, one site in Allen, Texas harnessed 67 megawatts of renewable energy from the Enel Green Power Azure Sky ‘solar + storage’ project in Haskell County in the same state which is equivalent to meeting 100% of its power requirements.

Supporting Biodiversity

Target 15.5: Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species

Data centre operators can proactively seek out opportunities to support diverse and resilient biological networks at and around their sites. For example, selecting locations pre-identified for industrial development helps avoid disruption to existing natural habitats, and once data centres have been constructed, they can ensure the available space is landscaped with native species that encourages benefits to wildlife. They can also partner with local charities with expertise in conservation.

Initiatives to boost biodiversity have already proved successful in Ireland, where 49 organisations from the Irish data centre community pledged to fund and plant over 1,000 orchards across the country including at a data centre in Grange Castle, Dublin, boosting food sources for bees and providing habitat for flora and fauna.

Realising The Impact

If data centre operators do not recognise the threat to the planet and take action to invest in making data centres more sustainable, it is not just local habitats and communities that will be affected. It only takes one occasion of high demand for scarce water to interrupt services, which could cause an outage and service disruptions for the client, negatively impacting both the vendor and customer’s bottom lines.

Data centres of the future are not just operationally resilient, but also ecologically resilient – they are not dependent on scarce water, they are energy efficient and they support natural habitats. Creating sustainable sites is a huge challenge, but it is crucial, and one that will pay dividends many times over.

Kyle Myers

Kyle Myers is Head of Global Environmental Health, Safety & Sustainability at CyrusOne. His responsibilities have included functional strategy, policy and procedure development, training, regulatory compliance/interaction and organisational development across the globe.