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Green data centres: How to build a sustainable internet

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Russell Poole, managing director of global interconnection and data centre company Equinix, outlines the role data centre companies can play in building a sustainable internet and highlights some of the steps and design techniques Equinix has taken to make this possible.

The global explosion of data is being driven in large part by the Internet of Things (IoT), digital payments and a rise in the number of data exchanges – trends which are only set to grow as the world embraces digital. This unprecedented increase may mean huge progress for the digital economy, but it comes at the cost of significantly higher energy demands and poses a new challenge for data centre operators looking to minimise their carbon footprint.

Equinix’s Global Interconnection Index –published for the first time in 2017 and due to be repeated in the coming months – forecasts that direct interconnection between businesses will outpace the public internet by 2020. Private data exchanges between businesses are forecasted to grow nearly 2x faster than global IP traffic in the same timeframe, and by nearly 6x in data volume, leading to a drastic increase in data traffic moving privately between businesses within the confines of data centres.

This escalating growth will be powered mainly by non-renewable fuels. As such, there is a need for the industry to look for a greener way of operating and embrace the shared responsibility to reduce environmental impact. But what measures are data centre providers taking to meet these pressing sustainability goals?

A sustainable future

Large and sustained commitments by the world’s leading data centre companies to source renewable energy, is driving the deployment of renewable generation sources at a faster rate than traditional fossil fuels in many regions of the world. Commitments to source power from lower carbon alternatives ensure that digital progress becomes decoupled from the carbonisation of our economy; protecting our planet as progress continues to accelerate.

Equinix understands that our actions impact the world around us, which is why energy efficiency has underpinned our design process over the last 20 years.

In 2015, Equinix was the first of data centre provider to publicly commit to a long-term goal of using clean and renewable energy to power its entire global data centre footprint – currently comprised of 200 facilities across 52 markets. This commitment was referred to by Greenpeace in its report Clicking Cleanas ‘a giant step forward for building a renewably powered internet’. In just two years, we hit 77% of our renewable energy goal, thanks to sizeable investments in projects involving wind and other renewable technologies.

Green by design

Applying sustainability innovations from the ground up when building data centres has become standard practice at Equinix, and we are already reaping the rewards. Our flagship LD6 data centre in Slough was the first in the UK to receive the coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating – a key milestone on our journey to create a sustainably-powered internet.

As Equinix’s LD6 data centre was built from scratch, there was significant freedom in both design and development – allowing us to use advanced techniques that prioritise sustainability from both an operational and environmental perspective.

The green construction and design choices pioneered at LD6 have since been leveraged as a best practice in many new builds in other markets globally. This includes indirect evaporative cooling, indirect heat exchangers, rainwater harvesting and air handling units, as well as a bore hole to an underground water source. These methods not only improve the operational sustainability of the data centre, they also reduce the site’s dependence upon local distribution networks.

Implementing these specialised technologies means that for close to 85% of the year, LD6 is cooled purely by natural air. It also uses 100% renewable electricity from mixed sources through a utility green programme and carries a Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) rating – which measures how much of a data centre’s energy use goes on powering the computing equipment versus how much goes on overhead such as lighting and cooling – of 1.2. This figure is significantly below the industry average.

Making a conversion

As one can imagine, retrofitting existing data centres and developing new and advanced technologies to make them more sustainable poses a whole new set of challenges. The design expertise comes in knowing how to deploy solutions in the most effective way within the confines of the infrastructure and physical footprint available.

Our AM3 data centre in Amsterdam, launched in 2012, is an example of how sustainable measures can be implemented in a new design data centre to make it future proof. AM3 is fitted with highly efficient hybrid dry coolers for optimal use of free cooling for most of the time a year.

AM3 also uses an Aquifier Thermal Energy Storage system that draws water from a cold well 170 metres underground and cools the facility once the ambient temperature hits 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The groundwater – warmed up by the facility – is then injected in hot wells and stored for half a season. The heat generated by the data centre is used to heat the Equinix office building next to AM3 during the winter. The thermal energy in the hot ground water well of AM3 is used to heat several nearby buildings of the University of Amsterdam. We are currently investigating using the excess heat from AM3 to heat thousands of houses in the residential area ‘Middenmeer’ next to the Science Parc.

In addition to this, we also implemented a ‘green roof’ which not only makes the building more aesthetically pleasing, it helps with cooling and reduces the runoff from rainwater, which could otherwise pollute nearby water sources.

An industry-wide goal

The progress made on making the industry more sustainable has required much investment, thoughtful design and lots of hard work. But this has been made easier by the commitment to collaboration we’re now seeing across the entire industry. Many of our customers share our goal to operate on 100% clean and renewable energy globally and leaders in the field are taking this matter very seriously. At Equinix, we are continually sharing advice and best practices with our partners across a variety of industries on how sustainability targets can be met.   

There is no doubt more needs to be done before the industry becomes fully carbon neutral, but we are very optimistic about the future. By building facilities that tackle the pressing issues of today, whilst also preparing for the demands of the future, we are steadily moving towards the long-term sustainability and success of our industry.

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