When it comes to fighting climate change, green data centres are of course a step in the right direction. But what are the rewards for getting it right? David Watkins, solutions director at Virtus Data Centres, tells us more.
With recycling commonplace, renewable energy now widely used, and cleaner living prioritised by governments around the world, businesses and consumers are increasingly mindful of how much their daily actions are contributing to global warming.
One of the most difficult areas to account for is the energy consumed (and heat generated) by data centres. The constantly processing computers and servers which make life online possible, and which have become so ubiquitous, have long been considered as detrimental to the environment.
Reports suggest that data centres currently use between 200 and 500 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year. Even at the lower end of this estimation, this accounts for 1% of the global electricity demand: more than the energy consumption of some entire countries – and surpassing that of some other energy hungry industries.
However, whilst the topic of data centre efficiency should certainly be debated and discussed, it’s widely agreed that the industry has made positive strides from the legacy data centres of years past. And, 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.
So how are the builders of the digital infrastructure ensuring their green credentials? And, crucially, is being environmentally-friendly really just about meeting government mandates and doing the right thing? Or are there commercial rewards available for data centre providers who get it right?
Building green data centres from the ground up
The definition of a green data centre as one that ‘uses resources more efficiently and has less environmental impact’ is valid as far as it goes, but it comes with a lot of latitude. So where do providers begin building an effective and measurable green strategy?
The most obvious place to start is with the green credentials of the building itself. 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; adaptation 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 that can be deployed to drive efficiency. Examples of this include highly efficient UPS’ (uninterrupted power supply), where unused capacity can ‘hibernate’ to reduce electrical losses.
CRAC (Computer Room Air Conditioner) units are typically equipped with variable speed fans, which will regulate in line with demand to reduce energy consumption. Pumps are equipped with variable speed drives, which 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 lower level. Ground and air source heat pumps are also being deployed by the most conscientious providers, along with local energy generation, all making use of clean, naturally available resources.
Reaping the rewards of going green
For many in the technology industries, ‘green’ has historically meant ‘expensive’. However, this perception is simply no longer true. Green measures are supported by a number of governments around the world, many of whom offer tax incentives to invest in environmentally-conscious technology, in order to support carbon reduction targets at a national level.
Furthermore, as technologies develop, demand is driving prices down, and it’s now not just more affordable to be environmentally aware, but potentially fiscally beneficial too. For example, reports show that infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16% 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 an economically viable alternative for standby generation, and the cost of renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels. Indeed, on average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power costs less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.
It’s in the use of renewable energy where we can also see how being environmentally conscious is helping to better meet customer demand. Periods of electricity price surge or downtime associated with traditional energy sources can challenge providers to maintain service at the level that their users expect – whereas renewables are already demonstrating increased reliability. Fixed pricing in renewable energy can help manage budget volatility – again important in meeting customer demand.
A final word
Energy improvements in data centre construction and management mean that the world’s increasing data use does not necessarily mean spiralling energy consumption and its associated environmental impact. Furthermore, trends such as the cloud are continuing to allow improvements in efficiencies to take place at huge scale.
Being a responsible operator with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is not just the right thing to do, it is increasingly what customers are demanding and can actually deliver commercial benefits.
Perhaps the clearest return on investment for companies that invest in sustainability strategies is in cost savings. 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 likely to significantly help reduce pollution.