by David Watkins, Solutions Director for VIRTUS Data Centres
Experts around the world agree that the data centre industry is making significant steps towards achieving better levels of sustainability. Today’s data centres are expanding and improving their use of renewable energy (with companies like VIRTUS now only using energy from 100% renewable sources), rolling out innovative approaches to cooling and employing other efficiency-enhancing methods to meet their green ambitions.
What’s more, data centre providers are committed to substantiating their work in this arena through standards and certifications – such as Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (or BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Operators and trade associations alike have committed to the European Green Deal, promising to make data centres climate neutral by 2030.
Whilst there is lots of progress to celebrate, it’s the future innovations coming down the tracks that are really exciting and can make even more of a difference to sustainability. With the brightest minds in the industry working together to drive progress, there is plenty to look forward to.
So, what’s next for data centres’ sustainability journey?
Goodbye to green washing
Like so many other businesses, the data centre industry has been suspected of ‘green-washing’ in the past. Greenwashing, or ‘green sheen’ is a form of marketing spin, in which green PR and marketing are used to persuade customers and prospects that a data centre provider’s operations, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.
However, providers and the wider industry are now much savvier about what it means to be truly green, and greenwashing will no longer wash.
In the year ahead, we’re likely to see providers look outside of their own operations in order to ‘prove’ the extent of their green credentials. Until now, we’ve seen companies successfully tackle their Scope 1 emissions (those from owned or controlled sources) and their Scope 2 emissions (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling). However, a big focus in the year ahead will be tackling Scope 3 emissions, which include the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain such as business travel, purchased goods and services, waste disposal and even employee commuting.
By measuring Scope 3 emissions, data centre providers will be able to assess where the emission hotspots are in their supply chain, identify energy efficiency and cost reduction opportunities, and engage suppliers and assist them with implementing sustainability initiatives.
The circular economy will grow and improve
The circular economy (also referred to as circularity and CE) is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. The idea of a circular economy isn’t new, but the ‘maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle’ model is likely to become even more prevalent in the months ahead.
From committing to get more life out of all materials in a data centre (maintaining equipment), to refurbishing hardware where possible and then recycling parts that can’t be reused, there are plenty of benefits to be had and it’s likely we’ll see many more providers adopt the principles. But establishing a circular economy isn’t without its challenges – most pressingly that many data centre providers don’t own the IT equipment they host – and so must rely on their customers to take a lead in implementing.
We’re also likely to see a sustained effort from data centre providers to educate and encourage partners and customers to embrace the model, and a move away from solely focusing on IT hardware and applying the same principles to the wider infrastructure of a facility; the area that data centre providers can control.
As well as these new initiatives, we expect to see the evolution of current practices – witnessing technology innovation and new ways of thinking to further the good work that is already being carried out through the industry.
The ability of data centre providers to harness renewable energy sources has been game changing in the industry’s pursuit of a greener future. Many providers, such as VIRTUS, now use 100% renewable energy, from sources like hydro, wind and solar. Fortunately, renewable energy is now not only more affordable than fossil fuels but can also be more reliable.
Data centre providers are looking closely at the fuel sources they use and are making significant progress. The use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil instead of diesel in our generators has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% as well as eliminating sulphur dioxide emissions and reducing harmful nitrogen oxides.
Other innovations being investigated promise to pay dividends in the long term. Technological developments in areas such as fuel cells are continuing at a pace and whilst they’re not viable right now, if they can perform at scale, they might present a compelling option for future green data centre power.