Techbuyer’s Astrid Wynne looks at the data centre’s response to the material cost of an increasingly digitalised society
Technology is rightly hailed as a force for good in making the world a fairer, more sustainable place. However, meeting the needs of an increasingly digitalised society has a material cost.
With more and more transactions, processes and communication transferring to the online world, energy usage and greenhouse gasses are increasing faster in this sector than most.
A significant proportion of this is embodied energy in the hardware, which accounts for roughly 50 percent of overall impact. While this is far from exclusive to the data centre sector, it is something we will need to be increasingly aware of going forward. The good news is that the industry is responding with new research into more sustainable solutions.
A shift in focus
Historically, we have focused on the energy draw of data centres and the introduction of wind and solar as a sustainable solution. Headlines report on issues like Google’s pledge to power 100 percent of its data centres with locally produced renewable energy as a ‘green story’.
However, the use phase is only part of the story. Aside from the fact that renewable energy has its own material cost in terms of the hardware required to generate it, there is also the energy needed to make the data centres in the first place, particularly the IT hardware. Another factor to consider is our increased use of digital, which is causing an explosion in the material cost.
A new appreciation of this may well be on the horizon. According to a recent report by think tank The Shift Project, digital technologies’ share in global greenhouse gas emissions has risen from 2.5 percent in 2013 to 3.7 percent today, and energy intensity is predicted to rise at a rate of 4 percent per year. This contrasts with the fact that global GDP’s energy intensity is declining by 1.8 percent year on year, ironically in part due to the increased use of digital.
In 2015, digital was expected to account for just over 3 percent of world energy consumption by 2025. Current expectation is that figure will be around 5.5 percent. CO2 emissions of digital technologies have risen by about 450 million tons since 2013 in OECD countries, whereas global CO2 emissions decreased by 250 million tons overall over the same period.
Focus on data centres
Why is this relevant to the data centre sector in particular? Because the data centre is the material end of our digitalised world. The energy needed to manufacture the hardware is huge, and this is beginning to draw increasing public attention.
Speaking at Vivatech in May 2019, Jean-Marc Jancovici of The Shift Project noted manufacturing a single computer emitted half a tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere, when mining, transportation and assembly were factored in. John Laban of Open Compute pointed out that servers are also computers. Their joint presentation received a massive 10,000 views in the first two weeks.