By Jodie Eaton, CEO, Shell Energy UK
The volatility of the energy market has been one of the defining features of doing business in 2022. For some, this has proven an inconvenience. For energy intensive industries such as data centres, however, things are far more challenging.
Tightly managing overheads will not only prove key to success, but survival. This requires the intricate management of energy consumption and harnessing process efficiencies wherever possible to keep servers running and costs down.
But while market volatility is proving a challenge, regulation is also focusing the minds of data centre managers. While no longer strictly aligned to EU policy, the UK’s general direction of travel is towards big reductions in energy use, minimising carbon emissions and transitioning towards net zero.
Making a plan
Getting hold of statistics and reliable information on UK data centres is difficult – and work needs to be done here for policy makers to obtain a true picture of the sector and its energy consumption.
Traditionally, data centre set points for temperature have been between 18 and 21°C. However, there has been no meaningful research to align these targets to meet other region’s targets. Most notable is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which recommends a temperature set point of between 18 and 27°C.
Understanding how we measure energy usage is important, as it provides an agreed baseline. In the UK, data centres use Power Utilisation Effectiveness (PUE) to gauge consumption. This figure is based on the ratio of total facility energy divided by the amount of energy used to power ICT systems and is expressed as a number.
Typically, data centres in the UK operate between 1.5 and 1.8, with the EU average being 1.8. In centres operating at a PUE of two and above, more energy is being used to provide the supporting infrastructure that is supplied to the ICT equipment. This suggests that more energy is being used to ‘cool’ the infrastructure than is strictly necessary – so is a handy measure of efficiency.
The data centre estate
It is important for policy makers to understand the nature of the UK data centre ‘estate’. These operations come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from someone’s back bedroom to hyperscale or cloud facilities, containing hundreds of thousands of servers. Due to huge demand, these types of facilities are currently being built at a remarkable pace globally.
Latest estimates suggest that around 500 such centres exist globally, with at least another 150 in construction. Most analysts estimate that data centre growth will be in the region of 25% for at least the next decade. Based on this thinking, we could soon see between five to 10 colocation facilities in every major city throughout Europe.
How to realise the energy saving potential
Energy savings of at least 15 to 25% could be achieved by data centres, with some businesses being able to achieve up to 70%. However, this would need a very radical approach, with businesses willing to make fundamental changes to their operations. Based on the figures above, typical server room energy bills could be reduced by around £10,000 to £25,000 per annum. And while this may not sound like very much, multiply that by 80,000 (the estimated number of UK server rooms) and you achieve national savings of several million pounds.
How do I save, what do I need to do?
Firstly, the best option is for the UK to adopt the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency). This details more than 150 best practices that cover management, IT equipment, cooling, power systems, design, and monitoring of server consumption.
Secondly, the UK needs to obtain data on energy usage, how much of this energy is used by running cooling systems and how much UPS’ use.
Moving ahead, data centres need to measure the amount of energy, and thus the cost of their IT estate to gain true visibility of current consumption. Next, the industry should calculate its PUE – the total amount of energy consumed by the entire facility, which is then divided by the IT load. Given this key baseline, we can start to track progress.
Exploration of options to contract renewable energy sources will also support decarbonisation goals, whether this is through on-site generation, renewable energy supply contracts, or power purchase agreements.
Quick energy wins
Once you have the PUE covered and other monitoring processes in place, it’s time to start looking at reducing consumption. Many of the quick wins, in terms of greater energy efficiencies, are simple. Some operations run well established cooling systems, which may be very inefficient in terms of energy use. Knowing your current PUE may provide you with new information that will help you to make informed decisions on issues such as cooling systems.
Likewise, monitoring energy use by site will enable anomalies to be quickly identified and dealt with.
Another option is the installation of occupation sensors that will automatically switch off lights in empty rooms and adjust heating levels in accordance with building use. It can ultimately free up cash to invest in more efficient equipment and embrace smart energy solutions. This is an approach that is gaining traction among manufacturers and data centres alike.
There is no single solution when it comes to optimising energy efficiency, and every business will benefit from bringing in expertise to identify the steps it can take to bring its energy use under control. There is still a huge role that mitigation and reduction can play in preserving the competitiveness of the UK data centre sector.