The past two decades have seen enormous shifts in modern life with an increasing reliance on cloud-based computing that makes remote work, virtual learning, online shopping and terabytes of streaming entertainment possible.
While the concept of digital life allows people to collaborate and interact from almost anywhere, all that data captured, generated and retrieved still resides in a physical place and has significant environmental effects on the real world.
There are more than 8,000 data centres in the world according to a 2021 survey, and heightened demand means more are on the way. Data centre inventory in top markets grew 17% year-over-year with nearly half of new facilities under construction leased before they are even completed. Using up to 50 times the energy per floor space than that used by most commercial facilities, data centres are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The industry is forecast to consume 20% of the world’s power supply by 2025 and has come under intense scrutiny as its carbon footprint expands.
Operators are facing civic and legislative pressure to disclose energy use, reduce their carbon footprints and power facilities with alternative, renewable sources wherever possible. New legislation in the United States, set for 2023, will require that public companies provide transparency into their Scopes emissions reporting, the impact of which will ripple throughout global supply chains. The European Energy Efficiency Directive (EED), expected to be solidified by member states by 2024, will require that any organisation using more than 100kW of Information Technology (IT) in a data centre publicly report energy use, improvements and storage data. Multinational corporations that are heavy data centre users need to update their operational strategies to meet Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals.
While most data centre operators are expecting reporting regulations, many are still unprepared. To mitigate the industry’s high-energy use, environmental impact and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sustainability and innovation must now be at the heart of the responsible data centre’s operational processes. Public scrutiny and legislation are prominent factors but reducing waste and lowering operational costs is also critical for data centre success.
These facilities have distinct characteristics of heavy energy consumption, particularly for their servers and cooling systems which use the most electricity. Studies show that electricity drawn from IT and cooling systems accounts for about 86% of total energy consumption in a data centre. This presents an opportunity for operations that implement tracking and analysis in this area because finding efficiencies and optimising energy allocation here will greatly impact its carbon footprint. Understanding how energy is distributed throughout the data centre in conjunction with using building monitoring systems that act autonomously will reduce costs and wasted energy.
Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) is a key metric for data centre operators, but for optimal PUE they require solutions that can benchmark and standardise this energy consumption information to identify patterns and automate responses. To gain the most transparency and energy-use analytics, it is critical to integrate the energy systems hardware with the computer infrastructure. Traditionally, the building systems and IT have not communicated, but with sensors and hardware controllers reading energy data, having the software element integrated will allow for immediate reaction to changing conditions. These also provide transparency into operations and give data centres the ability to leverage real-time data to drive decisions.
Collaboration is key
Investing in cooling and electrical system upgrades, heat recovery systems, and natural ventilation will go a long way toward meeting sustainability goals. Generator-less data centres that use solid oxide fuel cells or low-carbon fuels cells are being tested, showing promise to replace traditional diesel generators. As climate change results in higher environmental temperatures, location will also be an integral part of data centre planning. Colder climates will reduce the need for cooling system power. Solar, heat pumps and wind turbines can lessen dependence on fossil fuels, as does installing eco-mode systems on servers to lower energy draws while idle. Cross-functional teams (facilities, IT, sustainability, energy management, investors, client success, etc.) will need to collaborate and share data in order to achieve more sustainable operations.
Ironically, the energy-hungry cloud also holds the promise of finding solutions to the world’s current environmental crisis. IT innovation will be what allows more efficient energy use. Information collected by hardware/sensors and analysed by software provides the data-informed insights that will allow migration from fossil fuel dependence to clean-powered societies and will redefine efficiency and sustainability in the industry. Big data underlies the substantial gains in society’s productivity and efficiency, offering the promise of technological advances that will mitigate climate change effects.