Sustainability front and centre at Data Centre World Virtual
Thu 15 Jul 2021 | Astrid Wynne
“This year more than ever, the data centre sector is focusing on ways to provide more with less. Efficiency has always been a key part of discussions.”
Techbuyer found itself moderating the keynote opening panel discussion at this month’s Data Centre World Virtual conference on 7th July and also on a panel discussion around energy efficiency later that morning. A refurbishment specialist opening a data centre conference – or appearing in an efficiency discussion – is not something that would have been seen a few years ago. It is a testament to the changing conversation in the sector and evolving priorities.
This year more than ever, the data centre sector is focusing on ways to provide more with less. Efficiency has always been a key part of discussions. Now there is increasing emphasis on clean energy, reduced carbon footprints and circular economy. With digital hailed as a tool to deliver on less waste, more production, lower transport emissions, improved energy grids and better green energy provision, data centres are struggling to ensure they have their own house in order when it comes to lowering emissions, making the best use of resources and limiting their environmental footprint. As we struggle to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5-2% by the end of the century, environmentally responsible practice is no longer a “nice to have”; it is a necessity.
During the opening keynote “A big step towards Climate Neutrality?”, Techbuyer invited Michael Winterson of Equinix, Alban Schmutz of CISPE and OVH and Kevin Kent of Critical Facilities Efficiency Solutions to outline some of the aims of the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact in Europe, the rationale behind this and how it is likely to affect data centre sustainability conversations in the US and beyond. With some huge names signing up to the pact, including IBM and Intel, the group says the Data Centre sector can become climate neutral by 2030.
As the panellists pointed out, we have been aware of the damage done to the environment by modern developments for many years. However, we are now beginning to feel the very real effects of what that means. Floods, wildfires, pollution of the sea and land are increasingly on the public consciousness. Legislators are asking how we can limit this, moving the conversation beyond carbon accounting into “climate” accounting and aims towards being “carbon neutral”. Current thinking is to measure water usage effectiveness, heat reuse, circular approaches to IT hardware that save on critical raw materials alongside carbon-free energy and energy efficiency, however, the definition will likely evolve over time.
The business pages are a wealth of information on why this should be. Carbon accounting is already a part of financial reports for companies over a certain size in many countries. Yet reducing carbon output comes with a very real environmental cost. The Economist ran a feature on July 12th called “The bottlenecks which could constrain emission cuts”. It was startling reading. Looking at the bill of materials on renewable infrastructure, the article outlined the shortfall between what is available now and what we need to produce to serve the needs of planned wind and solar farms.
Aside from possible land shortages, there are problems around sourcing metals and rare earths. Lithium prices have more than doubled in the past year; copper prices have increased by 70%. There is a strain on other rare earths such as cobalt and neodymium. All of these resources are also in high demand in another sector expected to grow sharply in the next few years: data centres and networking. Renewable energy and digitalisation are in a similar position. Both are seen as a means towards a more sustainable future but are themselves responsible for huge resource consumption.
With all this in mind, it is no wonder that Jon Summers of the Research Institutes of Sweden began the Data Centre Alliance panel “How do we get to a low environmental impact and sustainable digitalised and dematerialised future?” with a question around the usage of data – how much is too much? How can we limit consumer data usage and what can the sector do about educating people? With insight from Mike Goodwin of critical infrastructure specialist Dunwoody LLP, Sophie Parry of lighting experts Zumtobel and John Booth of sustainable consultancy Carbon 3IT, we managed to tease apart some issues around this.
With a huge amount of experience in the buildings, energy and data centre sectors, experts on the call were able to raise some interesting questions about standards, transparency and how we begin to assess the benefits and challenges associated with a very new industry that is still growing fast. Parallels were drawn between this fourth industrial revolution and previous ones. This is not the only time society has been faced with the challenges of mitigating the negative effects on new technologies. The difference is we now understand the cost of not addressing them.
[This article is based on the panel discussions “A big step to Climate Neutrality?” and “How do we get to a low environmental impact and sustainable digitalised and dematerialised future?”. These and other presentations from the conference are available at Virtual Environment (datacentreworld-virtual.com) 9th July – 3rd August 2021]