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Supporting sustainable data centre construction

Image: Adobe Stock / narawit

Of all of the lasting effects of the pandemic, the European population’s dependency on constant, easily available data is perhaps the most apparent.

Amid a flurry of factors including surging demand for streaming services and a mass move to remote working, the internet penetration rate for Northern Europe now sits at a staggering 96%.

However, this demand has coincided with one of the greatest challenges to date for the wider IT industry in the form of the green transition. With moving towards carbon neutrality now at the forefront of the national agenda, the data centre sector is pioneering a number of innovative developments such as free cooling and renewable energy to drive down their environmental impact.

The true cost of data centre construction

However, it is critical that the data centre industry is also supported in its efforts to reduce the environmental impact of building new facilities, as well as day-to-day operation. Only through an all-encompassing approach can truly sustainable growth be enabled.

This concern is particularly pressing when considering power procurement for new builds. As establishing a grid connection can often prove a lengthy process, diesel gensets are commonly deployed in the meantime to meet the demands of the site. Naturally, this leads to an increase in CO2 emissions, particularly when used over an extended period of time. For this reason, it is critical that contractors are supported in their efforts to power their projects sustainably going forwards.

Tightening environmental legislation

The need to adopt more sustainable energy generation practices is further compounded by increasingly stringent environmental legislation surrounding fossil fuel consumption.

In continental Europe, for example, the Medium Combustion Plant Directive (MCPD) aims to limit the emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NO) and particulate matter (PM) for any equipment with a rated thermal input between 1 and 50 MWt. This is a move that has been mirrored in the UK with the introduction of a number of low and ultra-low emissions zones in major cities, including London, Birmingham and Manchester.

With SO2, NOx and PM all by-products of diesel combustion, this has significantly reduced the number of applications for gensets of this type. This has primarily affected the early stages of data centre construction, when a permanent connection to the grid is not always possible, meaning that contingency solutions must be brought in to power the build in the interim. As such, contractors must now look towards a substitute for diesel for their data centre construction projects.

Alternatives to diesel

The void left by restrictions on the use of diesel generators is undoubtably a large one. For this reason, it is unlikely that a single technology will be able to take up the mantle alone. As such, data centre contractors will need to be supported by a multi-faceted approach in their search for a solution.

With site power requirements subject to fluctuations during the construction phase, an ideal solution to this challenge could be a load on-demand system. Here, a number of small generators that scale up or down in accordance with demand are favoured over a singular system, allowing only the necessary amount of energy to be used. This is a key consideration given that contingency solutions are often operated as low as 30% load demand, with the ideal level closer to 80%.

In the interim, operators may find hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) to be of benefit. By making use of HVO as a drop-in fuel, sites can achieve an immediate reduction in carbon and local emissions. For those looking to source a more permanent solution, operators should ensure that new gensets are compliant with Stage V emissions standards.

This technology is equipped with diesel particulate filters, catalytic reduction systems and diesel oxidation systems, allowing emissions of CO2, SO2, NOx and PM to be significantly reduced. Resultantly, Stage V generators are fully compliant with the MCPD and fit for use in low and ultra-low emissions zones.

By making use of these technologies together, operators can effectively power their data centre construction project without violating environmental legislation such as the MCPD. For example, for a site with power requirements of 200kVA, switching to a hybrid and load on-demand package of two 60 kVA Stage V generators can deliver a 50% reduction in local emissions and CO2. Moreover, this also slashes fuel consumption by up to 50%, allowing for major savings on operational costs – a crucial consideration given the rising price of fuel.

Closing thoughts

Given the current rate of expansion in the European data centre market, reducing the environmental impact of these facilities’ construction will be vital to achieving net zero targets for the wider IT industry. While replacing diesel gensets will no doubt prove a challenge, greener alternatives are becoming more widely available.

To ensure that these tools are accessible, Aggreko has recently launched its Greener Upgrades initiative to support the data centre industry in its move towards net zero. Here, by offering solutions that are both environmentally friendly and pragmatic, the company aims to help contractors make impactful choices to reduce emissions while keeping operating costs to a minimum.

Enabling small switches to the way on-site power is approached will allow data centre construction to transition to greener practice, in line with the day-to-day innovations of the industry. Through the support of initiatives such as Greener Upgrades, contractors will be able to rise to the dual challenge of peaking demand and shifting legislation.

Picture of Billy Durie
Billy Durie
Global Sector Head for Data Centres at Aggreko

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