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Decarbonising data centres – harnessing the opportunities

Image: Adobe Stock / Moonlight Graphics

Amid the age of digital content, big data analytics, artificial intelligence and remote working, demand for cloud storage is booming.

With 95% of IT workload set to be hosted virtually within the next five years, data centres are coming under increasing pressure to offer cost-effective, scalable and accessible data storage solutions, while balancing the challenges of data security, privacy concerns and limited network bandwidth.

As a result, energy requirements are rising fast. Data from the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) suggests that server power consumption has increased by 266% since 2017 alone, while the average hyperscale facility is now said to consume between 20-50MW electricity every year (equivalent to 37,000 homes).

On a global level, the sector is already responsible for 3% of electricity demand, with predictions projecting this to hit 4% by 2030. As the shift away from traditional storage solutions continues, there are no signs of this remarkable growth slowing.

However, with rising demand and rising consumption come rising costs. With energy pricing volatile and budgets tightening, data centres must carefully consider how best to turn risk into opportunity.

The drive toward net-zero

Tightly managing overheads is vital to profitability, as well as staying competitive in a rapidly growing market. Delivering both in parallel requires intricate management of energy consumption, as well as maximising process efficiencies wherever possible to keep servers running and costs down.

But while energy market volatility is proving challenging, regulation is also focusing the minds of data centre managers. Reducing energy use, minimising carbon emissions and accelerating towards net-zero are increasingly becoming a key measure of performance.

It’s important to remember, however, that while these elements may seem like additional pressure, they also provide an opportunity to progress closer towards sustainability goals.

Monitoring and measurement

Accurately measuring energy usage is fundamental, as it provides an agreed baseline against which to benchmark progress. Traditionally, the set points for temperature in data centres have been between 18 and 21°C (with specific ranges agreed for humidity). In the UK, data centres use Power Utilisation Effectiveness (PUE) to gauge consumption. This figure is based on the ratio of total facility energy divided by the amount of energy used to power the ICT systems and is expressed as a number.

As a result, data centres in the UK typically operate between 1.5 and 1.8, with the EU average being 1.8. In centres operating at a PUE of 2 and above, more energy is being used to provide the supporting infrastructure that is supplied to the ICT equipment. This suggests that more energy is being used to ‘cool’ the infrastructure than is strictly necessary – so is a useful measure of efficiency.

Managing sustainability

In 2022, the UK was ranked the third most popular destination in the world for data centres, with 456 sites ranging from someone’s back bedroom to ‘hyperscale’ or cloud facilities containing hundreds of thousands of servers. Due to huge demand, these types of facilities are currently being built at a remarkable pace globally.

In order to make meaningful progress when it comes to energy management and decarbonisation, data centres must fully understand current consumption of their IT estate. Next, it’s important to measure PUE – the total amount of energy consumed by the entire facility, which is then divided by the IT load.

Exploring options to contract renewable energy will support decarbonisation goals, whether this is through on-site generation, renewable energy supply contracts, or power purchase agreements (PPAs). An increasingly popular option for data centres, PPAs offer transparency around investment in renewable energy as well as improved long-term certainty of pricing. There are solutions that can be tailored to demand across both single and multiple sites.

Quick energy wins

Many of the quick wins, in terms of greater energy efficiencies, are remarkably simple. Some operations run well established cooling systems which may be very inefficient in terms of energy use. Knowing your current PUE may provide you with new information that will help you make informed decision about improving the performance of cooling systems.

Likewise, real-time active monitoring of energy use by site will enable anomalies to be quickly identified and dealt with.

Another option is the installation of occupation sensors and other smart technologies that have the potential to adjust energy use to real-time requirements. One example is the ability to automatically switch off lights in empty rooms and adjust heating levels in accordance with building use. Every small change can add up to making a big difference. Any savings made can be invested in more efficient equipment and technologies.

There is no single solution when it comes to optimising energy efficiency and every business will benefit from bringing in expertise to identify the steps it can take in both the short and long-term to bring energy use under tight control. There is still a huge role that reduction can play in preserving the competitiveness of the UK data centre sector.

Our experience with data centres goes beyond supplying renewable energy. Indeed, our team works in close partnership with providers to develop robust energy strategies that deliver on both cost saving and sustainability goals.

For many data centres, the priority is to decarbonise operations and mitigate environmental impact. A challenge where partnership and collaboration with their energy supplier can make a critical difference to the success or failure of plans to transform energy use. 

Jodie Eaton
Jodie Eaton
CEO of Shell Energy UK Ltd

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