The influx of online data usage from our digital economy is driving significant growth in the data centre industry, so much so that the data centre is now recognised as the lynchpin of digital success, offering businesses all over the world the network connectivity and easy access to services that they need to deliver a seamless digital experience, writes David Watkins, Solutions Director for VIRTUS Data Centres.
However, there is a downside. The data centre industry is a contributor to emissions and therefore climate change. Today, data centres generate 2% of the world’s 50 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gasses every year and the EU Commission recently set a ‘green deadline’, noting that the industry “should become climate neutral by 2030.”
Data centre operators have a clear responsibility to meet their environmental targets, but also have to maintain a high quality of service and deliver on continually growing customer demand.
Harnessing renewable energy
The ICT sector is already world-leading in its adoption of renewables. According to Greenpeace, in the UK, 76.5% of the electricity purchased by commercial data centre operators is 100% certified renewable, and a further 10% is purchased according to customer requirement.
A good example is a campus in the southwestern tip of Iceland, which runs almost entirely on geothermal and hydroelectric power. The Icelandic data centre owners claim theirs to be the world’s first carbon-neutral data centre. Australia, too, is rising to the green challenge in terms of renewable energy; a data centre in Port Melbourne now includes one of Australia’s biggest solar arrays for generating its own power.
In the UK, VIRTUS Data Centres ensures that green credentials are in evidence. All of the energy consumed at its facilities is from 100% renewable sources thanks to partnerships with companies like Bryt Energy who generates power from wind, solar and tidal sources. VIRTUS’ LONDON2 data centre also incorporates a borehole dug at the inception of the site, using natural water sources for cooling reducing demand on the mains water supply. Combined with the local climate, and efficient cooling technology this delivers low Water Usage Efficiency (WUE) for the site.
Making cooling more
For a data centre to remain functional, it either needs to have been built in a country with a naturally cold climate or to be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that must be maintained round the clock. And according to studies, around 40% of the total energy that data centres consume goes to cooling IT equipment.
However, the industry is fast developing ways to keep equipment cool while, at the same time, minimising the environmental impact. For example, a Frankfurt data centre has reduced its water consumption through an on-site reverse osmosis water treatment plant, and harvested rainwater to feed the plants that cover the exterior walls and roof. Outside air is used for cooling more than 60% of the time in this innovative design.
VIRTUS Data Centres is continually looking at how to optimise cooling technology. To keep its facilities as efficient as possible, the company uses a variety of innovative design elements for greater efficiency while actually lowering costs; this includes air flooded data halls, utilising hot aisle containment, and cooling using a variety of industry leading technologies.
A holistic approach
Environmental ambitions must be built into every aspect of data centre construction and maintenance. For most experts, being environmentally friendly is not a binary achievement – there are ‘shades of green’. Not all things sustainable are the same, despite all claiming green-credentials. For example, burning biomass is carbon neutral, but not as sustainable as using wind, solar and tidal power.
By adhering to BREEAM standards, data centre providers can lead with energy efficient and effective design from the start, adopting the latest in building technologies and sustainable sourcing of materials – ensuring a smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water. Once a building is up and running there are plenty of every day concerns to address too. Highly efficient UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply) systems, for example having the ability to hibernate parts of the system when they aren’t being used – saving on unnecessary power use.
There’s no doubt that business and society will continue to demand new technology, but at the same time, technology usage will increase the demand for data centres to house servers to store and share data. In turn, the power needed to keep the data centres up and running will also grow.
Some data centres are already working hard to mitigate the environmental effects of a technology hungry society, but more can be done. It is clear that the industry needs to take action and continue its search for, and commitment to, new ways of minimising carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency.