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Building cleaner, greener data centres

Image: Adobe Stock/ metamorworks

Despite a booming global data centre sector, the growing climate crisis could start to limit progress on the development of new facilities. Governments, investors and major customers increasingly expect tangible operational advances to find more sustainable power solutions as the industry continues to expand. 

Accelerating action on net zero is not only an ethical consideration but will increasingly become a prerequisite for all operators. In the future, green finance may be the dominant source of available funding.

This is not just a long-term issue. Effective, early efficiency interventions today will improve the sector’s resilience in the short term and ensure power requirements are met at an acceptable cost.

Progressive policy making to unlock collaboration

Let’s start by stating the obvious – demand for data centres is not going away. As a society we are growing more data-hungry, in our personal lives, public services and business. However, political scrutiny is growing over the sector’s vast power demands, particularly in today’s strained energy market.

In Europe, it is largely organisations leading the way to a greener future, with the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact – signed by data centre operators and trade associations – creating shared standards for the sector across energy efficiency, clean energy, water, circular economy, circular energy system and governance. This turns the commitments in the European Green Deal into practical action from the sector.

By comparison in the US, there are promising signs when it comes to addressing the embodied carbon emissions associated with constructing facilities. The US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has seen a reduction in the cost of sustainable construction materials, stimulating investment in design practices that reduce this element of a development’s carbon footprint. However, this is one small part of the equation and operational emissions have not seen the same scrutiny so far.  

Around the world there are pockets of best practice in policy and industry standards, yet a more joined-up approach is needed to facilitate global net zero strategies.

A strong client vision is central to net zero design

The only way to effectively decarbonise data centres is to plan for a net zero outcome from project initiation. Unfortunately, in practice, the way that development programmes are set up can make prioritising net zero a challenge.

The competitive nature of the industry results in power efficiency interventions becoming a secondary consideration when getting contracts in place. Speed to market is a competitive advantage, meaning developers are time poor when it comes to thinking laterally about energy-reducing technologies.

In the same way that suppliers are responding to meet Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion standards today, we need to build net zero innovation into the criteria for design and construction from day one. This approach can transform standards by making sustainability a strategic and commercial priority for developers.

The bar is often set by larger multinational organisations like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Meta, who own and operate data centres directly. They sometimes have greater control over their own long term construction planning, giving them a distinct sustainability advantage whereby they can commit more internal resource and time to energy innovations.

Examples of this include Meta’s move to operate data centres at a cooler temperature and reduce acceptable humidity levels to reduce water and energy use. Multinationals are also more amenable to sharing best practice externally, in the absence of the fierce competition independent developers face.

Breaking down silos is key

There is a tendency for silos to exist between design and operational teams in the development of data centres. A progressive approach would see operational expertise reflected during the design process, enabling the stress testing of solutions and the provision of real-world application of sustainability interventions before they are proposed.

Large-scale, established players in the market can be expected to lead the charge to sustainable solutions, leveraging partnerships built over time with mechanical and electrical experts to identify practical solutions. By investing time in a longer design duration, developers can create wriggle room to test and refine options.

Smaller developers may be equipped with the agility to adopt change at pace, however they are likely to have less projects in their portfolios. This can make it harder for them to secure established suppliers with the skills to deliver change.

Based on what we are seeing at the moment, we would anticipate that it will take until the end of this decade for best practice in sustainability to permeate through the sector, and for smaller developers to adopt the technologies and processes that larger players in the industry will inevitably bring forward over the coming years.

Making the most of existing facilities through retrofit

Building new lower carbon data centres is part of the solution, but there is also a growing interest in retrofit for existing assets. Done well, retrofit can bring older data centres up to new efficiency standards while also avoiding emissions associated with demolition and reconstruction.

We anticipate more investment in retrofits over the next five years as organisations’ aim to get the best from the facilities they already have.

Green skills of the future

The sector’s net zero vision is an opportunity to attract the next generation of talent, presenting a clear and inspiring purpose for the next wave of processing and design experts. Fresh thinking will bring untapped solutions and create the pathway to a resilient and thriving data centre sector.

The growth of the data centre sector and its drive to net zero will also expand the development of renewables and opportunities for green jobs in tertiary fields that contribute to the industry.

The opportunities for net zero progress in the coming years are vast, and those owners and developers who take bold steps in the development of green technology, process and talent could be rewarded with significant ‘first mover’ advantage over their competitors.

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