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What steps should your data centre provider be taking towards sustainability?

Mon 9 Oct 2023

In this feature, Matt Edgley provides a comprehensive look at the mechanisms that could pave the way for a more robust data centre industry with a key focus on sustainability.

As data centres are predicted to consume a significant amount of the world’s energy by 2025, the need for Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) compliance has never been more urgent.

Matt offers key insights into the sustainable technologies and strategies that are shaping the future of this pivotal sector.

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A combination of remote working trends, the rise of AI, an ever-growing Internet of Things (IoT), and an increasingly tech-savvy society is resulting in data centre growth. But how data centre providers manage this growth with sustainability at its core?

Data centres are at the very heart of the digital transformation movement, and as the demand for digital access, processing and storage increases, so does the requirement for data centres.

Global IT data centre spend is expected to reach £182.8 billion ($222 billion) in 2023, an increase from $212 billion in 2021. And there are now almost 8,000 data centres across our planet. This number is growing. Currently the data centre sector has 4.1GW under construction to meet the global demand.

By 2025, the communications industry, along with data centres, is predicted to consume 20% of the world’s energy supply. So it is crucial that data centre providers address environmental concerns by implementing processes and procedures, and embracing technologies, that reduce their impact on the environment in line with stringent decarbonisation strategies that support environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) targets.

What is ESG?

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is a set of standards used to measure an organisation’s impact on the environment and on society.

It encourages businesses to implement more sustainable, ethical practices, and it is used by investors focused on sustainable and ethical investments as a measure of how transparent and accountable a business is.

As consumer behaviour changes and shifts towards a desire to engage with more ethical and sustainable companies, ESG becomes important across the board as a means for businesses to grow responsibly.

What Should Your Data Centre Provider be Doing to Create a More Sustainable Facility?

Responsible Energy Sourcing and Management

To reduce its impact on the environment, your data centre provider should be striving to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, while maintaining the quality and reliability of its data centre services.

Sourcing power from renewable sources to reduce reliance on fossil fuels is obviously an important first step here. You should look for a provider that has a carbon offsetting agreement in place, too. These agreements allow providers to offset carbon emissions through investment in carbon-saving projects.

But the buck doesn’t stop there. Effective energy monitoring and management can ensure that any energy wastage is minimised. Often, it is what happens behind the meter that makes the real difference.

With an effective energy management strategy and monitoring system in place, data centres can ensure optimum performance whilst minimising environmental impact.

Building Management Systems (BMS) can help organisations carefully monitor energy usage – from the data halls to the offices. Even making a simple change such as ensuring that office lights are switched off at night, or having heating and air conditioning running on timers can all add up to create a sizable annual carbon saving.

Look into how your data centre provider is powering its backup generators. HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) used in place of red diesel can reduce and/or eliminate carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide (NOx), particulate matter, and carbon monoxide emissions.

Does your data centre know its Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE)? How confident are they in talking about this and can they measure it in real time rather than just working towards a target PUE that never gets achieved? Are they registered for CCA (Climate Change Agreement) for data centres and is their PUE reported in appropriately?

Intelligent and Efficient Cooling

Cooling is one of the data centre industry’s biggest challenges. It is a crucial component in maintaining the performance and reliability of a facility, but it is also one of the biggest areas of energy consumption.

According to the EU Commission, cooling accounts for up to 40% of data centre power consumption. That said, there are many steps that a data centre provider can take to improve the efficiency of its air conditioning systems. This could be something as simple as turning the data hall temperature up a couple of degrees. In fact, it is a bit of a myth that data halls need to be cold. The recommended run temperature for a data centre is anywhere between 18-27°C as per the  American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidelines and environmental best practice. Turning the aircon down a degree or two can significantly reduce energy consumption without any detrimental effects on the equipment.

Moving to more intelligent methods of cooling can also drastically reduce energy usage while maintaining optimal temperature levels – something more sophisticated like harnessing one of the latest innovative cooling techniques such as liquid cooling, direct evaporative cooling, or adiabatic cooling.

Some further steps that your data centre provider could be taking include:

  • Cold aisle containment or blanking. This keeps energy usage to a minimum by only cooling the areas of the data halls that house the servers.
  • Underfloor cold air channelling to minimise wastage.
  • Variable fans within condenser units.
  • Free air-cooling systems.
  • Highly efficient cooling pumps.
  • Office space air conditioning controls to minimise wastage out of hours.

Environmental Accreditations

There are several environmental certifications that demonstrate a data centre’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and working towards a more sustainable future. These certifications can also show that the provider is operating in compliance with environmental regulations and in alignment with industry best practices:

  • ISO 14001:2015 for Environmental Management
  • EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres
  • ISO 27001:2013 Information Management
  • ISO 50001:2018 accreditation for Energy Management

It is in your best interest to check the scope of any accreditations and ensure that they come from reputable bodies. There should also be evidence that the facility’s environmental and sustainability policies are being followed correctly. Most data centres, and certainly those worth their salt, should have no problem with your business auditing their premises.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

A growing data centre industry means that there is not only a growing amount of energy required to power it, but also a growing volume of electronic waste, which poses a significant threat to the environment.

Not only does e-waste take up a lot of space in landfills, but it can also release hazardous chemicals into the environment. For this reason, data centres must advocate and advise clients on recycling and reusing electronic devices at the end of their life cycles or donating them to organisations that can repurpose them.

Waste heat can also be recycled. Usually, any excess heat produced by a data centre’s servers would be released into the atmosphere, but data centre providers have started exploring ways to recycle this waste heat for other purposes, such as heating nearby buildings or providing hot water.

Water can also be reused by deploying liquid cooling systems and then recirculating the same water through the cooling systems multiple times.

Next Steps to Data Centre Sustainability

When selecting a data centre, it is vital that you do enough research to make a sound decision on the provider that is right for your business. With increasing pressure on companies to hit environmental targets, finding a provider that helps you to achieve those ESG goals could make a real difference not only to the planet, but to your business’s reputation and brand.

ESG considerations are forcing companies to be accountable for their contribution to carbon emissions and climate change, and can present an additional burden for organisations as they face a whole host of other business pressures in a challenging economic climate. Find a data centre provider that can actually help you to realise your ESG ambitions, and you are halfway there.

About the Author

Matt Edgley is the Chief Operating Officer of Datum Group. He has over 17 years’ experience within the data centre hosting sector.

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