Rapidly accelerating global digitisation, driven by business and consumer demand, is fuelling an exponential growth in interconnection bandwidth.
Data centres play a critical role in this digital transformation, yet the concentration of interconnection growth in data centres is not without its own challenges. Pursuing sustainable innovation and technologies to improve energy efficiencies and reduce environmental impact must be a priority for the industry if it is to make a significant contribution to slowing climate change.
There is further motivation for the industry to act now as customers and partners are actively seeking sustainable suppliers to connect their businesses. According to a 2022 report by 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence, sustainability is a key factor for enterprises evaluating colocation providers, with 79% rating it as ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’.
While there has been positive progress in recent years, there is still much to be done. According to the International Energy Agency, global data centre electricity usage in 2020 was 200-250 TWh, or around 1% of global final electricity demand. This figure represents a contribution of 0.3% of all global CO2 emissions. With big data exploding and digitalisation penetrating every part of our lives, these numbers are only expected to increase without comprehensive industry intervention.
Thankfully, the industry is rising to the challenge as climate change is now seen as humanity’s biggest threat. As a global company, Equinix has committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2030. In 2021, the business reached a significant benchmark of 95% renewable energy consumption, which was achieved, in part, by utilising a variety of renewable energy sources based on local availability. For example, Equinix recently signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the Björkliden wind farm in Finland.
Equinix is also one of the founders of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Operator Pact, which now has more than 60 signatories. The Pact marks the first time that the industry has come together to solidify a commitment to ensuring that European data centres are carbon neutral by 2030. The initiative supports the European Data Strategy and the European Green Deal, which aims to reduce the European carbon emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to the 2019 base year and make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
These may sound like ambitious goals, but they are achievable if the industry focuses on implementing renewable energy and sustainable solutions. However, today’s climate and sustainability challenges are too complex to be addressed by individual organisations working in silos. With the help of leading industry experts and partners, Equinix is developing its ‘Data Centre of the Future’ concepts at its US-based Co-Innovation Facility (CIF). The test and development centre is working on a host of sustainable innovations, including fuel cell and liquid cooling technologies.
Working in partnership with Bloom Energy, Equinix is currently testing solid oxide fuel cells as a potential replacement for traditional diesel generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units. This work, being undertaken at CIF, is believed to be a substantial step towards cleaner, more efficient primary power sources.
Complementing its work at CIF, Equinix is also a member of the EcoEdge PrimePower (E2P2) consortium, which supports the development of low-carbon fuel cells to power data centres of the future. In December 2021, the consortium’s joint proposal received a grant of €2.5 million from the Clean Hydrogen Partnership, part of the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Commission.
These fuel cells use a unique tri-fuel design, allowing them to consume whichever fuel source is locally available: natural gas, green hydrogen or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Replacing traditional generators with alternative power solutions, such as fuel cells, not only reduces carbon emissions, but also cuts capital expenses and shrinks data centre footprints making them easily deployable in densely populated areas.
Liquid cooling technologies are also proving to be an attractive alternative, although their adoption in the data centre industry has thus far been hindered as a result of limited collaboration. Hardware manufacturers must commit to building liquid-capable servers at scale. At the same time, colocation providers must support liquid cooling from a practical and mechanical perspective by installing the cooling systems and providing the skilled workforce to maintain them.
Equinix is contributing to this by working with liquid cooling technology company ZutaCore to test highly efficient rack systems that can cool 100 kW or more per rack with a compact, waterless design. These high-density liquid cooling systems will contribute to the optimisation of energy and water usage to shrink the operational footprint of data centre facilities.
Another key element to improving energy efficiency is to replace manual power monitoring and delivery methods with technology. By deploying advanced sensors to identify potential energy waste and leveraging software management platforms to adjust accordingly, power can be delivered to data centre equipment in a more efficient and consistent way. In other words, this means that power is delivered in the right amount, to the right place at the right time.
Equinix is currently working with VPS to support the development of a software-defined power management solution. When used together with the cabinet-mounted battery energy storage solution, developed in partnership with Natron Energy, the software-defined power solution assists in managing the power draw and limits power stranding to almost 0%. It is estimated that this solution could improve power efficiency in data centres by as much as 30-50%.
While many innovations and ideas across the industry are still in test phase, there are examples where technology advances are already having a huge impact on meeting sustainability targets. Equinix’s BX1 data centre in Bordeaux is its first facility built using a modular, ‘Green by Design’ construction process. In addition to being much quicker to build than traditional data centres, BX1 uses a decoupled energy platform capable of supporting multiple energy sources and greener energy storage. Since the design is modular, it can be easily replicated in additional locations and constructed to meet local environmental regulations.
There are many reasons to be optimistic as the industry explores and invests in the sustainability agenda. As our reliance on digital infrastructure increases, data centres are set to be one of the biggest global energy consumers. Finding solutions to reduce power consumption and looking at ways to incorporate renewable energy sources is no longer an add-on but a fundamental requirement if European data centres are to meet their carbon free target by 2030.