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Why we need to start designing data centres sustainably

Image: Adobe Stock / Moonlight Graphics

We must design data centres sustainably to guarantee a greener future, says Dave Archer, Business Manager, Influenced Sales at Mitsubishi Electric.

With the UK now set on reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, decarbonising all sectors has become a priority for both government and businesses alike. Despite this shift, almost 80% of the energy we use still comes from fossil fuels, which are responsible for the majority of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Reconsidering where our energy comes from, and thinking about how we can use it more efficiently, will therefore play a vital role in reducing our impact on the environment. However, with energy-intensive buildings such as data centres continuing to play a crucial role in our increasingly digitalised world, minimising energy usage can be a challenge.

However, by focusing on reducing energy use in cooling systems and reusing waste heat to warm surrounding buildings, data centre designers and operators can help cut back on energy use and dial down the environmental impact of these buildings – to ensure they don’t derail the net zero goal.

Rapid data centre growth presents a challenge

Data centres are becoming increasingly important as the quantity of data generated in all walks of life increases. The amount of energy these buildings consume has increased as a result, with data centres currently responsible for 1.5% of global energy consumption – set to rise to 8% by 2030. As the number of data centres continues to increase, finding ways to combat this jump in energy use will be vital. But although the industry has made significant progress in increasing computing capacity while controlling energy use, improving energy efficiency is not always as straightforward.

Put simply, we can’t prevent data centres from consuming more energy to produce more power. The largest data centres consume over 100 MW of energy, and the increasing adoption of Artificial Intelligence could double or even triple this consumption. Clearly, we must ensure our data centres are designed with sustainability in mind. With the data centre landscape continuing to evolve,  designers and operators must consider all the options available to improve the energy efficiency of these buildings, if we are to reach net zero by 2050.

Cooling is a key area to consider when cutting energy use

In today’s world, businesses must be able to quickly and easily access the data they need – meaning even the shortest outages from data centres can greatly impact productivity and revenue. It’s therefore vital that IT servers are kept working at optimal conditions – and this is where cooling can help.

Alongside data management, cooling is also a crucial area to consider when lowering energy use – with up to 40% of total energy consumption coming from these systems. Choosing the right cooling solution for your building can therefore not only boost productivity by reducing the risk of an outage, but also lower its carbon footprint. For example, DX Computer Room Air Conditioning (CRAC) solutions offer an ideal solution for controlling temperature and humidity in small and medium-sized data centres, helping to create a cool environment for IT systems while also reducing energy consumption and running costs.

Re-using heat can help avoid wasted energy

Alongside using energy, data centres also eject a lot of heat. This poses an important environmental and financial question, as wasted heat means wasted energy, creating unnecessary costs while also having a significant impact on the planet.

One way of reducing the amount of waste heat produced is by re-using the heat generated from data centre servers to provide heating and hot water surrounding buildings. While some high-temperature systems can also directly heat other buildings where appropriate, the temperature of the heat doesn’t always have to be high, as low temperature rejected heat can also be combined with heat pumps to  increase the water temperature for domestic hot water and space heating in offices and homes.

An ambient heat loop or Fifth Generation heat network, where energy efficient cooling and heat pumps are combined, can also help significantly cut down on energy usage and running costs. This is already being trialled by Switch Datacenters, which has replaced its gas generator units with data centre heating in order to reduce its reliance on natural gas. This has allowed the organisation to deliver 97% of its server heat to nearby homes and offices, allowing customers to save between 20-30% on their power costs.

Closing thoughts

As the world becomes increasingly digitalised, data centres will continue to play a critical role in everyday life. With the amount of data needing to be optimally stored increasing, we must consider how we navigate this demand while reducing the impact of these buildings on the environment. By reducing the energy consumed during cooling, while also considering practical solutions such as heat recovery to minimise waste, we can help build a more modern,

Dave Archer
Dave Archer
Business Manager, Influenced Sales at Mitsubishi Electric

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