According to the International Energy Association, data centres used a total of 200–250 TWh of electricity in 2020, with this number steadily growing in-line with our reliance on digital technologies.
In 2021, data centres outpaced the energy consumption of rural homes in Ireland, accounting for 14% of electricity usage compared to the 12% from households – something that attracted the attention of Ireland’s Commission for Regulation of Utilities.
The high volume of electricity consumption is due to the energy intensity of data centre operations. Data centres use power in several ways, with the most common being the need to run vast amounts of IT equipment and the need to cool the equipment down so that it can function properly.
On average, servers and cooling systems each individually account for 43% of direct electricity use in data centres, followed by storage drives and network devices. With both functions being imperative for data centres to function and run smoothly, but with each creating a substantial amount of carbon emissions, data centre operators are finding it increasingly difficult to effectively address this issue. With the total number of global data centre transactions increasing by 64% since 2020, it is imperative that the industry reduces its carbon footprint whilst also meeting demand.
Decreasing its carbon footprint
With many large organisations making bold statements by pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the data centre industry needs to follow suit to help meet and support these goals. In fact, with the adoption of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, data centre operators are clearly committed to making Europe climate neutral by 2050.
Nonetheless, many approaches to sustainability seem to involve carbon offsetting, particularly by way of purchasing carbon credits. Whilst there are many carbon offsetting initiatives worldwide, this is ultimately a costly short-term solution that doesn’t directly reduce emissions. As such, it is important that the physical impacts of data centres are addressed and that steps are taken to cut the electricity consumed during operations.
Through addressing electrical infrastructure, water consumption in cooling systems, and reducing use of any diesel or gas-run generators, data centre operators can start to directly reduce the emissions and environmental impacts. By reducing the carbon footprint of data centres, rather than offsetting, the data centre industry will be far more likely to achieve sustainability goals.
A practical solution
One-off efficiency improvements, such as modernising cooling systems and power supplies, may boast a substantial reduction in carbon emissions, but they do not lead to long-term change. To control energy usage and emissions on an ongoing basis, data centres need fully integrated control systems, such as a building energy management system (BEMS) or an electrical power management system (EPMS).
These can enable data centre operators to have a single data-driven platform that collects, aggregates and presents mission-critical information in a variety of easy-to-use formats. These systems are most effective if they can provide real-time information to operators, as this enables decisions to be made on how best to optimise the operation of each facility and reduce overall energy consumption in response to changing market and operational conditions.
These systems can provide a single user interface, delivering real-time, clear information, communication and data processing for more reliable building automation and supervision. Gaining insights into a system’s performance capabilities typically makes it easier to identify inefficiencies and reduce energy waste, such as excessive water consumption. Upgrades to existing systems, especially those reaching obsolescence, can additionally help reduce emissions whilst also delivering valuable savings.
It is also important to work with partners who can reduce downtime, spotting issues early before they become system-level problems. New technology and regulations mean data centres are subject to constant changes, so it is vital to work with partners who understand the latest changes and how emerging technology can benefit the industry. By adopting this approach and identifying ways to prioritise decisions that help improve sustainability, operators can cut costs whilst achieving goals much more quickly.
The goal of data centres achieving carbon neutrality is no easy task. Nonetheless, if data centre operators want to improve their carbon emissions, it is perhaps time they consider integrated systems and experienced partners. Given the increasing demand the data centre industry faces, reducing their carbon footprint at the source can help the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions to decrease.