ESG and data centres – how standardisation and transparency can empower the industry
Fri 30 Sep 2022
Growing concern about the effects of climate change has placed much pressure on the data centre and digital infrastructure sectors.
Forces influencing the move toward sustainable data centres include a combination of government regulations, the demands of customers and investors, as well as a growing understanding that by leading on sustainability it is interlinked by our desire to grow. For example, in 2021, Schneider Electric and 451 Research surveyed over 800 global colocation organisations and found that 97% of providers’ customers were asking for contractual sustainability commitments.
While sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting have grown in importance, practices are lagging and recent research from the Uptime Institute found most organisations, still, are not closely tracking their environmental footprint. To support the efforts of operators, Schneider Electric has created a first-of-its-kind ‘Environmental Sustainability Metric Framework’, empowering the sector to take control of its sustainability goals.
The framework includes 23 key metrics for operators who are in the Beginning, Advanced and Leading stages of their sustainability journey, which helps the industry to standardise the way it measures and reports its environmental impact. It also proposes five key categories, which include energy use, GHG emissions, water, waste and land use and biodiversity.
Energy is the first category to monitor and measure. As the single most expensive operating cost associated with a data centre, and one that is subject to major price fluctuations due to the geopolitical nature of fossil fuels and renewable energy production, maximising energy efficiency makes both commercial and long-term environmental sense.
Second, are greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Carbon emissions resulting from the generation of gases such as CO2 (carbon dioxide), CH4 (methane), PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) are a major contributor to climate change and efforts to minimise such gases are ongoing across all areas of business. SF6, for example, is a greenhouse gas over 23,000 times stronger than CO2 and is found in most existing medium-voltage switchgear, so operators such as Schneider Electric have developed SF6-free technologies to directly address this.
Water use is another key to address with a 15-megawatt data centre typically consuming up to 360,000 gallons of water a day. Cooling towers and other evaporative cooling techniques are popular methods of heat rejection because of their high efficiency and large cooling capacity. However, the evaporation requires the consumption of significant amounts of water. Typically, a 1-megawatt data centre with traditional cooling methods can use about 25m litres of water a year.
Inevitably, data centres generate waste, both during their construction and operation, which often includes hazardous materials that must be disposed of properly. Circular economy design methodologies, Green Premium™ technologies and better processes can support sustainable improvements – as can recycling of end-of-life products including uninterruptible power supply (UPS) batteries.
The potentially harmful effects of data centre construction on land and biodiversity must also be kept to a minimum. This is especially true when extra demands on real estate are made, not just by the facility itself but by the associated renewable energy infrastructure such as wind turbines and solar panels.
When selecting metrics for each of the above categories, it is essential that they should lead to actionable outcomes that can drive significant improvements in sustainability, and, where possible, be applicable across all geographies.
For example, dealing with energy-related issues requires data centre operators to first measure the total energy consumption of their facilities, calculate the PUE and measure the amount of energy utilised from renewable sources. Renewables could be located on site, bought from energy companies by purchasing renewable energy credits or through longer-term power purchase agreements (PPAs).
From those measurements a renewable energy factor (REF) metric can be calculated as the ratio of renewable energy to total energy consumed at a site. An REF of 1 indicates that all the data centres power is renewable. Another key metric is energy reuse factor (ERF), the calculation of which is defined under the standard ISO/IEC 30134-6.Together these metrics can encourage operators to improve their overall energy efficiency, increase use of renewable sources and promote circular economy initiatives such as heat re-use.
The control of carbon emissions is of major global geo-political importance. As such, there are numerous internationally recognised protocols. Many of these are complex calculations encompassing emissions from multiple sources, but they form the basis for the calculation of other metrics such as carbon intensity and carbon usage effectiveness (CUE).
CUE is related to the IT load and allows comparisons of carbon emissions across data centres and other industries. It can be used in the site selection, planning and design phase as well as during operations to measure the effectiveness of continuous improvement programs.
Carbon offsetting and carbon credits, provide a means of encouraging businesses which have more scope to reduce carbon operations to do so, by paying them and deducting the amount of carbon saved from one’s own carbon emissions. Lastly, hour by hour supply and consumption matching will measure the extent to which renewable energy generation matches the energy consumption by an operator.
Waste, water land and biodiversity
Measuring total site water usage is also another key metric to include, and should cover all water consumed – fresh and reclaimed – within a facilities operation. Total source energy water usage measures the water used to produce the energy consumed by a data centre and can be used to optimise the water usage related to energy consumption.
For example, water used by an evaporative cooling system will add to the total water usage but will reduce energy consumption in the cooling effort. This saves water usage at the power plant, and provides a holistic view, enabling better management of all water associated with the plant operations.
With regards to waste, key metrics include the total weight of material waste generated at a data centre, from construction right through to operation; the weight of waste sent to landfill sites; the weight of waste diverted from landfills through circular economy efforts including re-use, manufacturing, and recycling; and waste diversion rate, which is the weight of waste recycled, divided by the weight of total waste generated. This metric creates a ratio that can be compared across data centres, so can be used to benchmark continuous improvements in waste reduction.
Although there is a general appreciation that the development of land for data centres should not adversely impact biodiversity, including animal habitats, plant life and even micro-organisms, metrics to compare efforts are in their infancy and not yet standardised. This, we hope, will change in future.
Application of said metrics
Once an organisation commits to gathering and processing sustainability metrics, they can be applied across a range of functions to deliver genuine improvements in data centre sustainability. The most obvious is target setting: aiming to improve the performance of a data centre or the overall organisation, whether by aiming to achieve a particularly ambitious PUE, CUE or WUE target, or aiming to reduce the amount of waste generated over a set period of time.
Metrics must also enable businesses to report accurately and communicate their progress towards achieving sustainability in a transparent and measurable way, thereby offering the possibility of certifying their efforts against accepted standards.
With the demands placed on the sector accelerating, and the need for resilience becoming greater, data centre operators must consider how their business choices impact the environment and prioritise standardised, sustainability practices within their organisations. For further information, please see our latest White Paper #67, a ‘Guide to Environmental Sustainability Metrics for Data Centres’.