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Is retrofitting key to ESG?

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Could retrofitting be the perfect fit for ESG-focused data centre operators, asks Ozgur Duzgunoglu, Head of Engineering & Design, Telehouse Europe.

Data centre sustainability is no longer a choice, but a critical requirement. The integration of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) commitments into the core strategies of organisations has become a key factor in assessing their long-term viability and ethical footprint in the tech industry.

Despite the heightened awareness of the importance of sustainability however, a significant portion (34%) of businesses in the data centre sector are either at a standstill in their sustainability endeavours or have not yet embarked on this journey. This implementation gap, as identified in recent research by Telehouse, presents a dual challenge of concern and opportunity for businesses in the data centre sector. The disparity between ESG intent and actual progress in the real world calls for a strategic reassessment of the paths to achieving sustainability goals.

Challenges posed by legacy equipment

The persistent use of legacy equipment and outdated processes is a major obstacle in reaching ESG targets. Traditional cooling techniques, which are still prevalent in many data centres, involve high levels of water consumption, posing serious environmental issues. This problem is exacerbated during drought periods when water resources are already under pressure.

With climate change expected to increase the frequency of such extreme weather events, both in the UK and worldwide, water management has become a critical issue. Initiatives by water companies like Thames Water, that explore the implementation of flow restrictors and variable water pricing, are direct responses to these sustainability challenges.

Rethinking the new construction approach

The idea of constructing new, technologically advanced data centres to meet ESG criteria might seem like an ideal solution at first glance. However, this approach is fraught with significant challenges: substantial financial investment, long lead times in the supply chain for essential components such as data centre MV equipment, transformers, and a shortage of specialised skills. The construction of new facilities also entails increased emissions from the use of raw materials, transport, and other associated resources, potentially offsetting the sustainability benefits.

Understanding the retrofitting options

Retrofitting stands out as a strategic and sustainable option in the modernisation of data centres. It focuses on modernising existing facilities, which reduces the total carbon emissions associated with constructing new buildings. There are two principal retrofitting methodologies. Firstly, repurposing buildings not originally designed for data centre operations, which necessitates thorough planning and significant initial investment. Secondly, updating existing data centre facilities. Although retrofitting older buildings, especially those not initially equipped for advanced systems such as liquid cooling, presents certain complexities, it offers an opportunity to utilise existing infrastructure to minimise costs and operational disruptions. 

Integral to this process is the selection of suitable equipment that meets ESG requirements. For instance, retrofitting can involve the installation of hot and cold aisle containment systems, which optimise cooling efficiency by preventing the mixing of hot exhaust and cold ‘supply’ air, potentially saving 10%-35% in cooling energy. This system improves airflow efficiency, enabling slower fan speeds and more consistent use of energy-efficient cooling methods like air-side or water-side economisers. Additionally, integrating lower power servers and adopting green computing practices ensures that equipment is utilised only when necessary, further enhancing energy efficiency and sustainability.

Bringing together environmental responsibility with operational feasibility

Looking deeper into retrofitting solutions, significant opportunities lie in integrating technologies that enhance efficiency and align with ESG standards. For instance, introducing energy-efficient free cooling air systems (with High Water Temperature), such as advanced air-side or water-side economisers, can substantially reduce energy consumption. Adopting renewable energy sources and incorporating sustainable power management systems can further solidify a data centre’s commitment to environmental stewardship too. These technological upgrades not only contribute to reducing the carbon footprint but also provide a competitive edge in an increasingly eco-conscious market.

The broader impact of retrofitting

Beyond the immediate environmental benefits, retrofitting has broader implications for social and governance aspects of ESG. By reducing energy consumption and improving operational efficiency, data centres can lower their operational costs, which in turn can be passed on to clients, enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty. Retrofitting projects can also stimulate the local economy by creating demand for skilled labour, contributing to workforce development and community engagement. This holistic approach to ESG aligns not only with environmental goals but also supports social responsibility and ethical governance practices.

Balancing environmental sustainability with operational practicality

While the development of new, advanced data centre facilities might appear to be a straightforward solution to meeting ESG standards, the practical realities of high costs, extended timelines, and unintended environmental impacts make retrofitting an appealing and strategic alternative. By adapting existing structures, data centre operators can significantly reduce their carbon footprint, align with ESG goals, and avoid the disruptions and costs associated with new constructions. Retrofitting is a unique solution that effectively combines environmental responsibility with operational feasibility, offering a path that meets current needs while preparing for future sustainability challenges in the data centre industry.

Picture of Ozgur Duzgunoglu
Ozgur Duzgunoglu
Head of Engineering & Design at Telehouse Europe

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