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How data centre managers can make a difference to the climate crisis

Thu 23 Jan 2020

Kevin Kent is a global expert in climate change and data centres – and believes every data centre manager has a role to play in tackling the climate crisis

From raging bushfires to record temperatures and melting ice caps, the impacts of climate change are starting to feel very real and present. And data centres make a significant contribution to climate change – they are currently responsible for around 2 percent of all global carbon emissions, a figure set to keep on rising as our addiction to streaming and always-on connectivity continues apace.

“Data centres are now consuming power at an alarming rate, and it is estimated that global data centres could account for nearly 25 percent of available electricity by 2025” says Kevin Kent, who divides his time between managing Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre’s data centre and leading the consultancy Critical Facilities Efficiency Solutions, which he founded in 2018. Kent, who became fascinated by the architecture of data centres early in his career regularly speaks about the industry’s climate responsibilities at global summits, and he will be presenting at Data Centre World London in March.

Kent’s message is clear and simple: “Everything you do to reduce matters, everything you do counts!” So, where should data centre managers begin?

Scale of the problem

The causes and effects of climate change are now widely known. However, for both consumers and tech industry workers, the exact role of servers in that equation can be unclear. Kent tries to put the industry’s energy usage into perspective: “for data centres in the US alone it would take approximately 34 massive coal fired power plants” to generate the energy required every single day.

In an ideal world, the solution to the problem is simple: “the obvious answer is to use power generated from carbon free sources such as wind, solar, and hydro.” However, in many parts of the world this simply isn’t possible at present. Renewables only make up a quarter of all energy produced, of which the majority comes from hydroelectric dams. If your data centre isn’t located near a dam or other renewable energy source, this might not yet be an option.

When switching to renewable energy sources isn’t possible, Kent says there is still a lot that data centre owners can do, especially when it comes to the way they manage their estates. This involves “looking into how efficiency is measured in data centres as well as understanding and evaluating the data. One of my favourite sayings is ‘You cannot manage what you do not measure.’”

Join Kevin at Data Centre World, 11-12 March 2020, ExCeL London

Climate change and the need for efficient data centers
12 March, 13:30 – 13:55

For Kent, a key place to start here is with the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric. “This metric is simply the ratio of total amount of energy used by a data centre facility to the energy used by the computing equipment.” Although PUE is controversial, it can help data centre managers ascertain which parts of their data centres are inefficient. Using this metric, site operators can figure out how much of their energy bills are going on things which are not essential to the running of the servers themselves – be that cooling, airflow control, humidity management or other energy uses.

Kent argues that very often these other energy uses could be made much more efficient. He points to a recent Uptime report which “estimated that in the US alone nearly 12.5 billion kW hours would be wasted by over-cooling in data centres and improper airflow management.” When conducting data centre evaluations, he often finds other sources of energy waste, including “an abundance of ‘zombie servers’, and a significant amount of retired equipment being sent to landfill rather than recycled.”

Ultimately, becoming energy efficient makes commercial sense as much as it does environmental sense: “it is very possible to have a highly efficient data centre without affecting the overall health and reliability of a facility. As a matter of fact, the two go hand in hand!”


While there are no doubt problems with the way that data centres use energy, Kent seems optimistic: “there is a significant amount of amazing, innovative, and creative work, taking place” around the world.

One example is data centres in Denmark “that have been heating nearby homes with heat waste since 2013.” For many data centres, excess heat is simply funnelled out into the surrounding environment, yet in some cases this is being used productively. “Reclaiming what was once ‘waste’ and delivering a heat supply to homes, office buildings, hospitals, and schools, decreases the demand from sources that use fossil fuels to create heat thus decreasing carbon emissions.” This is also a valuable way of ‘giving back’ to the communities surrounding data centres too.

He also notes that Europe and the Nordic countries in particular are continually developing renewable energy which powers carbon neutral data centres. He also notes that many data centres are being built in cooler locations in order to bring down the temperature inside ‘naturally’, rather than using energy-intensive air conditioning systems.

We all have a role to play

For Kent, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to climate change is people’s attitudes – especially around our ability to have an impact on climate change. “There is a fairly common mind-set that a single data centre does not significantly contribute to the climate crisis and certainly can’t do much to help!”. Kent argues that this attitude is redundant.

“I challenge every data centre owner I meet to somehow reduce 25 kW hours a day.  This would lead to a reduction of 219,000 kW hours a year and reduce carbon emissions by 131.65 tonnes. What if 2,000 data centres would reduce by 25 kW hours a day? The little changes in each data centre would add up to 1,200,000 kW a day, 438,000,000 kW hours a year, and a reduction in carbon emissions of 263,300 tons!”

As Kent points out, “the only way to slow global warming is to drastically decrease the amount of carbon emissions and burning of fossil fuels”. And his message is clear: we can all take small steps to make that change.

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