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Building a green data centre: the key ingredients

Thu 25 Oct 2018 | John Booth

Solar Park

John Booth, MD of Carbon 3IT and chair of DCA Energy Efficiency SIG, looks at what is needed when putting design pen to paper for green data centres.

According to TechTarget a “green data centre” is a repository for the storage, management and dissemination of data in which the mechanical, lighting, electrical and computer systems are designed for maximum energy efficiency and minimum environmental impact.

So, as a colleague once stated: ‘If you’re not building a green data centre, you should get out of the industry’ and this is a very valid point, however, building a green data centre is very different from operating and maintaining one.

The same colleague also said the ‘greenest data centre’ is one that never gets built, which is also a valid point, but I can see no let up in the amount of digital services being provided, such as cloud, AI, HPC, IoT, and Edge, so it’s a moot point. We will be building data centres in the future and we need to ensure that they are as green and as sustainable as possible.

I recently mused that a data centre, given the acceleration of technology and the need for high rack power densities will probably only last for 15 years, which inherently is not a sustainable position unless we can recycle much of the components. But, today, we have no idea what technologies or concepts will be around in 5 let alone 15 years, but we do have some very good guidance.


Primarily, we have the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) Best Practice Guidelines2which is also a technical report (EN50600 99-1) in the EN50600 series of data centre, design, build and operate standards, as is an impending technical report on sustainability (EN50600 99-2) these best practices indicate the direction of travel to implement maximum energy efficient and minimum environmental impact relating to energy, water and materials use.

The BREEAM data centre criteria also provides a great deal of guidance on data centre construction. We understand that the scope of the BREEAM data centre standard is under review and an update is pending.

Whilst these documents provide some excellent guidance on the design, build and operation of energy efficient and sustainable data centres it is largely up to the project sponsor to determine whether to adopt and implement them.

Currently, there is no planning guidance on the construction of data centres, they are considered to be ‘Sui generis’ that is ‘of its own kind’ and as such do not fall into any definite planning category, unlike, for instance planning guidance for shopping centres or residential projects.

However, some may argue that data centres are Class B8 and in the main they would be correct, however, Class B8 is specifically ‘storage or distribution centre’ which can be open air and thus not subject to any specific planning requirements.

What is needed to ‘enable’ green data centres?

Firstly, we have to have ‘buy in’ from the owner/operator, or their funder, they will need to ensure that the cost of the provision of green data centres concepts is not going to impact on ROI or attracting clients.

Secondly, the planning authority must be aware that green data centre energy efficiency and sustainability guidelines exist, the recent EU funded EURECA4 project did provide a lot of guidance and training.

They will also have to change their mindsets, they are (in the UK) at least, largely focused on employment, so will be happy during construction, (150+ jobs) but not so happy during operation (15+ jobs).

Sometimes, they may have concerns over potential noise or pollution issues (generators) but if they can attach a S106 requirement (where the operator must provide a social benefit, such as ensuring that jobs are local, etc) they will.

Perhaps they need to include as a planning requirement the need for a statement from the prospective developer what actions they will take with regard to the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) and possibly insist that the developer is a participant to the scheme. They could insist that the building undergoes a BREEAM assessment, and that it should be graded as ‘Excellent’ or above.

Thirdly, we need to employ engineers and technicians that are aware of and implement green data centre design, build and operate principles. For that we need education. The main training providers all provide insights into green data centres, the EUCOC and sustainability (impending course).

Fourthly, financial incentives specifically for the data centre sector to kick-start investment in greener designs, the circular economy, waste heat reuse, etc., and perhaps some sort of re-education or training grant. This would be very useful to combat the threat from other EU countries post Brexit that have low energy costs (Nordics/France) where finance could be made available for renewable energy systems.

Financial incentives are already available in Local Enterprise Partnerships and their associated Enterprise Zones, initiatives such as 100% business rate discounts, 100% enhanced capital allowances and simplified planning (not something I think we should use, given the above!).

If any large developer has a data centre campus scheme in mind, then they should adopt for the campus as a whole, many of the provisions outlined above.

For instance, I know of one development company – albeit with a wide remit and support from 4 municipal authorities – that engaged with one of our partner companies to develop a sustainability framework for data centres. This framework is very comprehensive and requires organisations seeking to locate on their properties to provide and adopt the following elements:

  • Achieve a BREEAM EXCELLENT credit for buildings
  • Measure and report on the EN50600 defined KPI’s as a minimum as a self-assessment and self-improvement mechanism
  • Follow best practices as identified by the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) and that the site is a registered participant to the EUCOC scheme on a voluntary basis
  • Value-added plan covering Sustainable Energy, Heat Reuse, Energy Footprint Reduction, Circular Economy and finally shared services and facilities

In addition to having to provide this information to the development company, the report is then reviewed by external consultants for comment and possible improvements..Of course, there is a danger that a prospective owner/operator will just decide to go elsewhere where the conditions are less onerous.

Giving the green light

In order to enable green data centres we need 5 things, developer buy in, adherence to Standards, education, financial incentives, and a wider adoption of data centre sustainability frameworks. If you’re not building a green data centre every time you put design pen to design paper you really do need to find something else to do… or perhaps you need some education!

This post originated at Data Centre Management magazine, from the same publisher as The Stack. Click here to find out more about the UK’s most important industry publication for the data centre space.

Experts featured:

John Booth

Managing Director
Carbon3IT Ltd.


Data Centre dcm energy environment Europe green
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