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Top tips for sustainable data centres

Image: Adobe Stock / PRASANNAPIX

Daryl Whitt, Technical Director, Climate Change and Sustainability at ALL4, outlines some key ESG and sustainability considerations for operators in 2024.

As the global demand for data storage and processing continues to soar, data centres have become integral to our digital world. However, the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) implications of these facilities are increasingly under scrutiny. As a result of the Paris Agreement, 198 countries have signed on to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. That commitment is highly relevant to the data centre industry and the conflict with increasing energy demand and how the world reaches net zero. It’s crucial to align data centre operations with the evolving ESG landscape, while ensuring long-term sustainability and competitiveness.

Below are five sustainability tips and insights for data centres to consider in 2024 and beyond.

Energy efficiency and water conservation 

Data centres are experiencing rapid expansion, particularly in regions such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Northern Virginia, where data centre growth is strongest in the United States. This surge in demand is placing strain on local grids and utility providers, especially with the ongoing advancements in technology, notably AI and quantum computing. These facilities generate significant heat, particularly under increased demand. Along with energy efficiency considerations, water conservation is a critical concern, especially crucial for data centres located in arid regions where water supply is limited.

While many data centres currently rely on traditional air handling and air conditioning systems with evaporative cooling towers to keep equipment cool, to enhance energy efficiency, data centres must consider air handling improvements. This has led to data centres using free-air cooling systems or refrigerant cooling loops which offer greater efficiency in both cooling and water use.

Best practices include installing server racks in rows and implementing hot and cold aisles, covering openings between racks, and sealing cable penetrations to optimise air flow through the racks. Data centres are also considering the use of immersion cooling technologies to further increase cooling efficiency. Data centres should stay abreast of technological enhancements pertaining to cooling their facilities as energy use and water supply concerns continue to increase.

Renewable energy

To meet the increasing demand for energy and net-zero commitments, data centres are installing renewable energy microgrids with battery storage on-site and collaborating with local utility providers to increase grid interconnection access to renewable energy. These changes are crucial for reducing reliance on traditional grids, mitigating environmental impact, and promoting environmental justice. By transitioning to renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, and geothermal sources, data centres can contribute to a more equitable distribution of environmental benefits and enhance community resilience.

Social impact & environmental justice

Data centeres serve as vital hubs of technological infrastructure, offering myriad benefits to the local communities where they operate. To improve local relationships, data centres should actively engage with the communities in which they operate. They should not only assess their environmental impact and water usage from local aquifers but also consider their social impact on the community. Data centres must collaborate with local utility and water providers to ensure they do not strain the community’s supply and avoid any environmental justice issues.

Through their presence, data centres catalyse economic growth that contributes to the local economy through revenue generation, bolstering community finances via taxes, fees, and investments. While data centres create good employment opportunities during construction, they are not large employment centres during operation, but the jobs created are high-paying, technology-related opportunities. But as stewards of technological advancement, data centres often invest in upgrading local infrastructure, thereby enhancing the region’s overall connectivity and accessibility. Additionally, they can play a pivotal role in fostering education and skill development by collaborating with local educational institutions to offer training programs and resources in technology-related fields.

By actively engaging with the community through outreach initiatives and partnerships, data centres establish themselves as valuable contributors to the social fabric, enriching the lives of residents and promoting sustainable development in the regions they serve.

Circular economy

When considering data centres, e-waste, recycling, and batteries often come to mind. Data centres typically replace servers every three years, resulting in the disposal of a significant amount of potentially toxic materials if released to the environment. However, there are also valuable materials in the servers that would otherwise need to be sourced from countries like Russia, China, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Embracing circular economy principles is crucial for data centres to have a clear recycling plan for all e-waste, ensuring it remains in a closed loop. Moreover, they should prioritise purchasing recycled products or technology instead of relying solely on new or virgin resources.

ESG regulations

As data centres continue to play a vital role in our digital world, it’s imperative for them to align their operations with evolving ESG standards. Countries around the world, including Europe, Southeast Asia, and with the SEC reporting regulations passed in March, the United States is adopting ESG reporting requirements. Although compliance may not be immediate, it’s crucial for these companies to acknowledge the tightening regulations surrounding data centre activity. Therefore, companies will need to start planning and conducting gap assessments now to be prepared for when compliance is required.

In 2024, data centres should prioritise energy efficiency by exploring on-site renewable energy options and collaborating with local utilities for renewable grid interconnection. Additionally, water conservation efforts are critical, particularly in arid regions, where data centres must adopt more efficient cooling systems to minimise water usage. It is essential for data centres to begin preparing for ESG reporting requirements.

Furthermore, data centres must actively engage with local communities, understanding and mitigating their environmental and social impact while fostering economic growth and educational opportunities. As countries strive for carbon neutrality under the Paris Agreement, data centres must play their part in reducing emissions and transitioning to sustainable practices. Embracing circular economy principles by implementing clear e-waste recycling plans and prioritising recycled products further enhances their sustainability efforts.

By adhering to these insights, data centres can ensure their long-term sustainability, competitiveness, and positive impact on the communities they serve.

Picture of Daryl Whitt
Daryl Whitt
Technical Director, Climate Change and Sustainability at ALL4

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