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Building new data centres fit for digital-first communities

Image: Adobe Stock / metamorworks

The world loves data. Whether it’s video calling a friend, checking a bank balance, sharing files with colleagues, or storing pictures in the cloud to be shared to social media, the modern age runs on data and encourages almost everything to be achieved with the swipe of a thumb across a screen. As data levels rapidly increase, however, so does demand for the data centre space to support it.

Current estimates indicate that 120 Zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied and consumed in 2023, growing by over 50% by 2025. Data centres are essential infrastructure for the digital age; however, they have also been among the world’s largest energy consumers and generators of carbon emissions.

Traditionally, the energy used to power and cool data centres was often generated by fossil fuels, contributing to the carbon footprint of both the digital and physical worlds. Added to that, some data centre facilities had earned a reputation for impacting negatively on local communities, generating noise and traffic pollution, taking up valuable land resources and offering little in return to residents and stakeholders than another big building on the horizon.

Data centre activism grows

Though we are connected to the world’s data centres through the phones in our pockets, the rapid and unabated growth of the sector has understandably caused consternation among many. With data space at a premium, particularly within city centres where the digital demands of the population are highest, a movement has been forming. Governments in Singapore, Ireland and the Netherlands, among others, recently imposed moratoriums on new data centre construction, to allow the time for the impact that continuous development was having on their local communities to be assessed. 

Despite this, the market is set to continue its expansion, with some predicting growth of 7.5% and an accumulated value of $200 billion by 2032. The important role that data centres play in the efficient running of our cities and towns is unlikely to ever reduce – meaning that action must be taken immediately to mitigate the environmental impact of every facility, starting with how they are built. 

Designing for the future  

Data centres have a unique opportunity and responsibility to lead the way in building sustainable infrastructure for the modern age. By designing and constructing data centres with sustainability in mind, using green building standards such as BREEAM for example, we can drastically reduce their environmental impact and help communities thrive. 

Thankfully, the industry has taken great strides forward to improve sustainability in recent years. Developers are increasingly focused on building facilities that are fit for digital-first communities with environmental considerations front and centre, not least in response to the impact of the global energy crisis. As many European data centre operators flag concerns about continued access to grid energy supplies, energy-efficient design, securing renewable energy sources and smart building technologies become even more vital to ensuring the sector is fit for the future. 

Many data centre operators are already well on the way, with wind, solar and hydro power helping facilities to decrease their dependence on non-renewable energy sources. Some operators, including Iron Mountain, are already matching 100% of their consumption with renewable energy. Energy-efficient design can also significantly reduce the amount of energy needed for power and cooling – with cold aisle and hot aisle containment, and free air cooling among the solutions available, reducing the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. 

Smart building technologies including advanced building management systems can optimise the operation of a data centre with minute accuracy to boost energy efficiency and drastically reduce carbon emissions. Automated lighting systems and temperature controls can reduce energy usage in non-critical areas, while sensors and monitoring tools can report real-time data on performance and energy consumption, allowing for continuous optimisation, preventative engineering, and other improvements to be made. Additionally, advanced software and analytics can help optimise energy usage in data centres, further reducing consumption and costs.

Moreover, designing data centres with circular economy principles can reduce their environmental impact by promoting a closed-loop system in which waste is minimised and resources are reused. For example, a data centre in Prineville, Oregon, uses a water treatment plant that recycles 100% of its wastewater for use in the facility’s cooling towers. 

Positive impact on local communities  

Building sustainable data centres goes beyond reducing environmental impact alone – it also requires companies to take account of the social and economic impact of digital infrastructure on communities. Investing in education and workforce development, as well as supporting local infrastructure projects, can assist the development of the local economy and encourage additional investment. With more considered and localised construction methods encouraging smaller supply chain networks, local merchants may also benefit from increased customers, as materials are sourced from neighbouring businesses. 

Furthermore, involving local communities in the planning and design process of data centres can lead to more sustainable outcomes. By considering local concerns and needs, data centres can be designed and constructed in a way that benefits both the company and the community. For example, in Denmark, Apple worked closely with the local community to design a new data centre that includes a heat recovery system providing heating to nearby homes, reducing the overall carbon footprint of the facility, whilst lowering energy bills for all. In Sweden, waste heat is utilised extensively in district heating networks to heat schools, hospitals, libraries, leisure facilities and even vertical farms to ensure that this valuable resource is not wasted. 

Building data centres fit for digital-first communities, therefore, requires us to fast-track the shift in mindset that has already begun – away from creating excessive waste and towards sustainability. Data centres, once viewed as technical infrastructure, now feature far more prominently in our world and therefore, the sector must act now to implement sustainable change on both a wide and hyper-local scale. 

With the surging demand for data usage, data centre operators have a unique opportunity and responsibility to design and construct sustainable data centres that look outside themselves, to the wider network in which they exist. Not only must they benefit their own organisation, but they must also play a role in cutting carbon emissions within their supply chain and offer their community a positive uplift.

By leveraging renewable energy sources, innovative cooling methods, circular economy principles, and involving local communities in the planning process, we can build data centres that are fit for the modern age, whilst also protecting the planet and improving the lives of those around us. Doing so now will enable us to fully embrace whatever opportunities the next digital innovations bring.

Chris Pennington
Chris Pennington
Director of Energy and Sustainability at Iron Mountain

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