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The circular economy is the data centre industry’s next frontier

Fri 22 Feb 2019 | Armand Verstappen

In the transition to a circular economy for any industry, the responsibilities boil down to designing out waste and pollution, and extending the life of products and materials. That calls for a transition to green and renewable energy sources, the reuse of excess heat and a complete redesign of all the building blocks that make up the data centre, says eBay’s data centre and network manager, Armand Verstappen

The circular economy refers to a departure from our current linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model. It is a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops

In the long-run it is the appetite for sustainability that is driving demand for a circular economy. Continuing the linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’ indefinitely is impossible, as we will run out of fossil fuels and other finite resources. The ‘dispose’ part of the model is already pulling us in the direction of adverse climate change, polluted oceans and ever-increasing landfills.

But presently competitive incentives, new regulations and government coercion is encouraging the switch. Turning waste into resources helps drive down costs, and the industry has to adhere to an increasing number of regulations designed to drive down CO2 emissions. The fact that many local, regional and state government bodies are now formally committed to the transition towards a circular economy is a key motivator for businesses competing to sell products or services to these entities.

Data’s orders

This transition is in the interest of all of current and future humanity. The data centre industry consumes vast amounts of energy. Reports claim that the industry uses between one and five percent of all the electricity generated worldwide. According to some prognoses, the European data centre industry will double its energy intake in the next five years. So, when looking at this question from a “fair share” perspective, the responsibility is huge.

Another way to look at it is that the industry has a responsibility of self-preservation, as a lot of the digital transformations taking place right now are relying on data centres to run workloads, and some of them are enablers of a more circular economy.

To continue to support these transformations, we should transform ourselves and begin to find ways to alleviate the pressure we put on the power grid in many areas of the world. Apart from power, our use of batteries needs attention as well. They use a mass of finite resources and produce a lot of waste, so there is work to be done.

The circular economy spirit

Let’s return to the first few foundational principles of the circular economy as formulated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation : to design out waste and pollution; to keep products and materials in use; and to regenerate natural systems.

In order to design out waste you need to be using renewable energy; in order to design out pollution, you also need to use green energy. A drive for better power usage efficiency has been part of the industry DNA for quite a while now.

However, we still consider ridding ourselves of excess heat using free air cooling to be efficient. We need to think of heat as waste: we should treat it as a secondary product and put it to reuse.

We are seeing a lot of research and a number of commercial initiatives that seek to address issues of efficiency and heat reuse, but at the same time, we are seeing a lot data centre real estate being built right now that does not take heat reuse into account. This needs to change.

“This transition is in the interest of all of current and future humanity.”

A few factors contribute to this. First, there are many legislative areas where permits to build data centres are given for plots of land that are far removed from potential consumers of excess heat. Second, often the power grid is not ready to deliver the required amount and quality of power close to where customers for excess heat are. Finally, the demand for data centre space is so strong that the incentive to innovate to gain a competitive edge is relatively weak.

Data centres of excellence

The shift to green, renewable energy sources is in large part depending on availability, which sits with the power grid operators. Our industry can further improve on power usage efficiency by implementing technologies like liquid immersion cooling. This technology not only has the potential to remove many power consuming components in the data centre, it also enables a more effective capture and reuse of excess heat.

Fueled by demand for data centre builds, the industry itself is calling for a level of standardisation. Therein lies an opportunity to revisit the building blocks to become more modular and to incorporate the principles of reusability. The Open Compute Project embraces the principles of circular economy and is an example of how the industry is already taking steps to move forward.

The data centre industry will continue to grow in the foreseeable future, and with that power consumption will grow as well. In some regions we will soon push beyond what the power grid can provide. I believe this power challenge calls for a much closer relationship between power grid operators, data centre operators and heat grid operators.

When looking at the cooling challenge, there is a lot of promise in the idea of liquid immersed cooling, and the industry needs to double down on a number of areas. The liquid itself being one. It should not evaporate, it should come from a renewable resource itself, last for a very long time, and can be recycled eventually. And obviously, it should not negatively affect the lifetime of the servers submerged it.
To do liquid immersed cooling at scale, we need the leading CPU manufacturers in the world to certify their products for these cooling methods to allow server manufacturers to build certified solutions on top. A standards body like the Open Compute Project could do meaningful work here.

Looking beyond the data centre industry itself, which is required for circular thinking by definition, we can see that renewable energy isn’t available in abundance in the areas where we currently concentrate our data centres. Not all workloads need to be at super low latency distance from the major internet exchanges. Improving connectivity to currently undeveloped data centre areas that are better positioned to use renewable energy and reuse heat could trigger a massive improvement.

As an industry, we need to invest heavily in innovation and partnership with neighbouring disciplines. It is only a matter of time before governments will begin to institute taxes that will penalise inefficient facilities. In Europe, we are seeing large oil and gas companies enter the utility space. With heat reuse in mind, these are developments to be on top of and huge opportunities lie ahead.

Join me at Data Centre World.

Armand is presenting at Data Centre World 2019, taking place at the ExCeL London March 12-13. DCW and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT business leaders, decision makers and influencers.

Experts featured:

Armand Verstappen

Manager Data Centre and Network


circular economy Data Centre efficiency renewables
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