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Sustainability: a bright future ahead

David Watkins

David Watkins

Solutions Director at Virtus Data Centres
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We all know the headline statistics; data centres are currently responsible for 1% of the world’s total energy consumption, and this figure is set to grow even further in the months and years ahead.

However, whilst the demand for data storage is certainly not going to slow down, there is plenty of good work being done in the industry from a sustainability point of view. Today’s data centres are expanding and improving their use of renewable energy, harnessing innovative approaches to cooling and employing other efficiency-enhancing methods to meet their green ambitions and minimise their impact on the environment.

Whilst there is lots of progress to celebrate, what is next for data centres and their sustainability initiatives? What can data centre operators be doing today to get ahead of the game on mandatory climate change and environmental sustainability commitments and reduce their environmental impact?

An end to green washing

Whilst we know data centre providers have great ambitions, we must still be mindful of any organisations that claim to be carbon zero. We’ve witnessed ‘green-washing’ in the industry, where providers have been accused of using sustainability as a ‘PR tactic’ – talking a good game without properly committing to sustainability strategies. With organisations setting their own ESG targets, any sustainability claim in the supply chain will need to be proven. And this includes data centres.

In the year ahead, we’re likely see providers look outside of their own operations in order to ‘prove’ the extent of their green credentials. Until now, we’ve seen companies successfully tackle their Scope 1 emissions (those from owned or controlled sources) and their Scope 2 emissions (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling). However, a big focus in the year ahead will be tackling Scope 3 emissions, which include the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain such as business travel, purchased goods and services, waste disposal and even employee commuting.

By measuring their Scope 3 emissions, data centre providers will be able to assess where the emission hotspots are in their supply chain, identify energy efficiency and cost reduction opportunities in their supply chain – and engage suppliers and assist them to implement sustainability initiatives.

The growth of the circular economy

The idea of a circular economy isn’t new, but the ‘maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle’ model is likely to become even more prevalent in the months ahead. The approach ensures that the data centre industry can achieve maximum efficiency in the use of finite resources, support the gradual transition to renewable resources, and ensure the recovery of the materials and products at the end of their useful life.

From committing to get more life out of all materials in a data centre (maintaining equipment) to refurbishing hardware where possible, and then recycling parts that can’t be reused, there are plenty of benefits to be had and it’s likely we’ll see many more providers adopt the principles in the months ahead. But establishing a circular economy isn’t without its challenges – most pressingly that many data centre providers don’t own the IT equipment they host – and so must rely on their customers to take a lead in adopting the approach.

We’re likely to see a sustained effort from data centre providers to educate and encourage partners and customers to embrace the model. We’re also likely to see a move away from solely focusing on IT hardware and applying the same principles to the wider infrastructure of a facility – to the areas which data centre providers control.

An evolving journey

As well as these new initiatives, it’s important to remember that there is already plenty of good work being carried out in the data centre industry to meet its sustainability obligations – and which we will see grow and evolve over the year ahead.

The ability of data centre providers to harness renewable energy sources has been game changing in the industry’s pursuit of a greener future. Many providers, such as VIRTUS, now use 100% renewable energy, from sources like hydro, wind and solar.  And the great news is that renewable energy is now not only more affordable than fossil fuels, but can also be more reliable.

Data centre providers have also been looking closely at the fuel sources they use – and significant progress is also being made here. The use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil instead of diesel in our generators has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% – as well as eliminating sulphur dioxide emissions and reducing harmful nitrogen oxides.

Forward looking innovation promises to pay dividends in the long term. Technological developments in areas such as fuel cells are continuing at a pace – and whilst they’re not viable right now, if they can perform at scale, they might present a compelling option for future green data centre power.

However, while individual providers are working hard to innovate and progress against their green ambitions, ultimately, we know that the industry must work together to solve its green challenges. From sharing best practice to setting up multi party task forces, there is plenty of scope for more collaboration – and it’s only by working together that we will make the necessary steps to be even more responsible when it comes to mitigating climate change.

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