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UK data centres exceed energy efficiency target two years early

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UK data centres signed up to the Climate Change Agreement have successfully achieved a more than 15% improvement in their power usage effectiveness, meeting the target two years ahead of schedule. However, while the data centres achieved the feat collectively, on an individual site level, there’s still some improvements to be made. 

The Climate Change Agreement for Data Centres has largely been successful since it was launched by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy back in 2001. Since the second phase of the scheme began in 2013, more than 150 sites have signed up to participate, with all participants receiving a 93% reduction in the Climate Change Levy (CCL) on electricity, which equates to a reduction of just under 0.8 pence per KWh. In order to obtain the reduction in the CCL, however, data centre operators have to hit annual targets for the reduction of PUE. 

Of the 88 target units in 2018, only 40 met the target of a 13.52% reduction in power usage, the other 48 were forced to either leave the scheme, use surplus carbon from previous periods, or buy out the carbon needed to meet their targets. All 48 decided to stump up the cash and buy out the carbon in order to remain in the scheme. 

Despite more than half of the target units failing to meet the target, the industry as a whole still outperformed 2018’s target by a wide margin, and even managed to eclipse the final 15% milestone that was set for the end of 2020. In fact, according to both TechUK and the Environment Agency, collectively, the industry managed to achieve an improvement in PUE of 16.72% over the last year. 

The success of the data centre industry in improving its PUE is a major achievement, especially given the current debate surrounding climate change. However, the failure of more than half of all units to achieve the required level is a major concern. 

According to TechUK, the industry as a whole is at risk of letting its PUE improvement slip due to issues outside of its control. In fact, the association notes that the diminution in enterprise customers due to Brexit-related uncertainty, the decrease in IT load due to improvements in customer energy stewardship and hardware performance, and older sites that were full at the start of the scheme but now unable to benefit from efficiency improvements due to diminishing IT loads, could all be part of the problem. 

From the outset, many in the industry noted that it would be a difficult task to improve their PUE, after all data centre operators simply manage the facilities while the customers are responsible for the IT equipment. However, the industry has risen to the challenge and proven that it is a driving force behind a reduction in carbon emissions in the IT sector as a whole. 

According to TechUK’s associate director of data centres, Emma Fryer, “Commercial data centre operators are already very focused on energy efficiency because electricity represents such a large proportion of operating costs. 

“The CCA is a positive influence because it lengthens the horizon for investment. The combination of stick (a challenging target and the obligation to buy out shortfall) – together with carrot (levy concession, which means operators have the money to invest) seems to work well in changing behaviour. 

“This differs from conventional carbon taxes, charges and levies, which tend to deprive operators of the very resource they need to make the changes. 

“However, the CCA does not extend investment horizons far enough to enable operators to implement high capital, longer term improvements.  

“Nevertheless, the CCA continues to provide a range of benefits to the sector. The requirement to measure and report energy consumption in a robust, consistent and auditable way, including the obligation for all sites to implement sub-metering, has set a much higher standard for energy monitoring. PUE is now being measured more consistently and appropriately. 

“This has improved transparency and has given us a better understanding of the way the sector uses energy. 

“The aggregate figures provide invaluable insight into sector energy demand and have already dispelled several myths about data centre energy use, which has previously been a subject of much poorly informed speculation. 

“In many cases we are also seeing more open customer-supplier dialogue on energy to address the kind of split incentives that have historically occurred in landlord-lessee scenarios.”

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