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Tackling data centre sustainability myths

Image: Adobe Stock / sdecoret

The data centre industry has often been misunderstood by much of the general public around the globe, but for those of us working in the industry, the past few months have further highlighted the lack of understanding of what data centres are, how they operate and their critical importance to modern life.

The news that Thames Water is looking into the impact of data centres on water supplies was closely followed by a story on house building being halted ‘due to’ data centre-related electricity capacity issues – and a very public spotlight was shone on data centre sustainability.

People working in the industry will know that both issues were sensationalised by some media, with limited investigation as to whether data centres were actually the culprit of their accusations. Nonetheless, the stories did serve to draw attention to the idea that providers need to better educate and promote all of the positive work that has and is being undertaken to mitigate data centres’ environmental impact, whilst serving increasing demands from customers and society as critical infrastructure underpinning all modern life.

The actual truth is that the data centre industry has long been committed to ensuring sustainability and efficiency, with providers working hard to use resources, including power and water, responsibly. As well as acknowledging this progress, it’s important for people outside of the industry to recognise that data centres are fundamental to the functioning of the economy and modern society. We already know that without them, businesses simply couldn’t operate, but this is not widely understood beyond our industry.

Myth 1: Cooling data centres reduces water supply for household use

One myth that needs to be dispelled is that data centres use enormous amounts of water to cool equipment and keep facilities working efficiently.

It’s true that more providers are turning to chilled water systems as an economical, effective and efficient way to maintain cooling. But it needs to be understood that the water used for cooling systems is often sourced sustainably, from bore holes or using impurified water – not the supply as we rely upon for household use.

What’s more, the majority of large data centres use ‘closed loop’ chilled water systems, meaning that water is charged into the system during construction and then continually circulated within a facility, rather than needing new water consistently pumped into the building.

And lastly, indirect evaporative cooling – which does require water periodically for adiabatic functionality – is more energy efficient, so provides other benefits. This type of cooling uses fresh air from outside the building, which is filtered and then delivered into the facility for cooling purposes. This only requires the use of fans, so the overall energy consumption is lower. As outside temperatures rise, firstly compressors are brought on-line to provide additional cooling and only at high temperatures (24C or higher) is water consumed. Given that data centres operate 24×7, and temperatures above 24C in the UK typically only occur for a few hours a day across a small number of months per year, water usage is minimised.

Myth 2: The industry is power hungry and prohibitively energy intensive

It’s true that the data centre industry requires significant power to operate. But what the headlines fail to mention is that energy consumption is another area where significant environmental strides have already been made. The ability of data centre providers to make use of renewable energy sources has been game-changing in the industry’s pursuit of a sustainable future.

Many of the larger data centre providers already use 100% certified renewable energy, from sources including hydro, wind and solar.  And encouragingly, renewable energy is now not only more affordable than fossil fuels, but often more reliable too.

Today, some data centre operators are moving away from Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), and instead they are embracing Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with renewable generation operators. These help to increase the availability of renewables and support the UK government’s net zero commitment. Investment in PPAs delivers increased volumes of renewable energy to the grid, creates ‘green’ jobs and delivers cost certainty for operators and competitive pricing for customers that is not subject to energy market volatility.

Myth 3: Providers aren’t driving progress in sustainability

We’re fortunate enough to work in an innovative, forward-looking industry – and the great news is that progress is happening all the time. Many data centre providers are demonstrably driving change and leading by example, showing other sectors that by harnessing the brightest minds and cutting-edge technology, it is possible to ‘green’ even the most power intensive industry.

This progress is evident when we look at sustainability statistics. Currently, many experts estimate that data storage and transmission to and from data centres use 1% of global electricity. But this share has hardly changed since 2010, even though the number of internet users has doubled, and global internet traffic has increased 15-fold since.

So it is important to look beyond alarmist and misleading headlines, which are doing a disservice to an industry which is committed to boosting sustainability and mitigating its environmental impact – and is very much leading the way for other industries to follow.

Picture of David Watkins
David Watkins
Solutions Director at Virtus Data Centres

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