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Utilising clean energy

Chris Pennington

Chris Pennington

Director of Energy and Sustainability at Iron Mountain
Image credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock.com

Securing a sustainable future is more important today than it has ever been. Specifically, it is a race against time to achieve net zero carbon emissions, because whilst we are making material progress towards this goal, climate scientists are clear – we still have a long way to go. 

Fortunately, the pace of corporate action in this area is accelerating. As we continue to fuel the tides of change, companies need to focus on solutions that not only help them achieve their carbon reduction goals, but assist their customers in achieving their own climate goals too. These positive impact solutions become a force multiplier as we collectively fight with rigour for a net zero future.

Data centre operators who buy large amounts of electricity can make huge strides in carbon reduction by embracing renewable energy across their operations. As they invest in renewable energy procurement for their facilities, they can pass on its benefits to their customers and thus the development of a clean energy ecosystem begins. Encouragingly, customers of corporate colocation data centres are increasingly seeking more sustainable energy supplies, which thanks to recent progress, they will be able to access more and more. Operators in our industry, Iron Mountain amongst them, have proven that renewables are a reliable and cost-effective energy source by activating innovative procurement solutions, and it is making clean energy more accessible to all. 

We’re all in this race together. Ultimately organisations should work with each other to share the lessons learned within organisations like the Clean Energy Buyers Association (CEBA), which is committed to supporting global energy decarbonisation. Simply put, data centres must recognise that we have a significant opportunity to both serve our customers and work to reverse the damage to our planet. Environmental awareness should be woven into everything we do as we seek to address the challenges to sustainability in our industry and what we can do to overcome them. Our shared goal should be to demonstrate to our customers that we can help them to achieve their own sustainability goals as well.

A green approach to power supply

While just a small part of the IT sector overall, data centres contribute substantially to its power usage and carbon emissions. The need for such operations in this day and age is unavoidable, but there are things that can be done to minimise the carbon footprint.

Supporting clients in their pursuit of zero carbon is core to this. Data centre companies purchase impactful renewable energy at scale and can provide their customers the power they need as they need it, from a single rack to an entire data hall. Developing further renewable supply channels is also key. We now know that it is possible to create renewable energy procurement solutions at a competitive cost, and if more data centre companies work towards this, more data centre customers all around the world will be able to enjoy long-term clean energy contracts with stable costs. 

It is also important that the data centre itself is considered as part of the environmental solution so that operations are sustainably minded, end-to-end. Green building certifications, including BREEAM for example, are the first step on this journey. 

Fundamentally, renewable energy is not only environmentally and socially responsible, but also cost-effective and reliable. Those with concerns over reliability can be rest assured that the colocation data centre space is deeply focused on uptime reliability for clients on onsite generation. 

Alternative resources for a low carbon future

There have been questions in recent years about the potential for new alternative energy resources being leveraged for backup power and there are plenty of opportunities to be explored. Batteries, for example, are a likely contender in the nearer term, as the ability to add in additional incremental storage can be realised as battery costs decrease. Therefore, designing a new facility to incorporate megawatt storage space may become increasingly efficient. 

Other solutions, such as hydrogen, are a more difficult proposition today, but should be considered on a long-term basis. Hydrogen certainly has a role in the low carbon future, but currently, there are big barriers to overcome before we can effectively harness it as an energy resource. The cost of hydrogen is high, and the distribution will be challenging, so governmental buy-in is necessary before this option can begin to be fully explored. 

Looking ahead 

From both an environmental and financial standpoint, there are many opportunities to keep improving once you have implemented a clean energy system. 

Tracking emissions with both market-based and location-based methodologies is integral, as it allows businesses to recognise the macro-impact of their renewable energy procurement and track how their local grids are also getting greener. The more we can all drive renewable energy on to local grids, the more performance will improve – for all of us, across the board.  

Financially, you need to gain more awareness of when carbon-free power needs to be placed on the grid to become fully decarbonised. Renewable power is the lowest cost power out there, whereas unmatched (carbon-based) hours are the most expensive. Thus, the more you invest in renewables into your local grids, better align your consumption with when clean energy is available, and develop storage to bring these two pieces together, the lower your cost of power will be and the more resilient your grids will become.

Ultimately, although driven by the desire to simply protect our planet, embracing clean energy is very much geared for the greater good of our industry into the future. Committing to sustainability is no longer a ‘nice’ thing to do, but an essential one for longevity in an environmentally-conscious world. Together, we must focus on achieving carbon-free energy provision for every hour of every day, as per the UN Compact on Energy 2021, and strive for a greener grid overall – the benefits will not only be a healthier planet, but a healthier bottom line.

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