Decarbonising DCs in SEA calls for a different approach
With the COVID-19 pandemic exploding the demand for digital services, it is also fuelling the need for increased data centre capacity all over the world.
According to the U.S.-based consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the global data centre market’s investment is worth more than $200 billion and growing approximately 10 per cent per year. South East Asia is witnessed as one of the fastest-growing markets for data centres, accounting for an estimated 13 per cent of the region’s total market size in value.
Even as this is music to the industry’s ears, for the environment this tune could be jarring. The call on the decarbonisation of data centres is becoming the main focus – from Board rooms to coffee shops where the discussion is centred around sustainability.
Is Renewable energy a start?
The International Energy Agency reports that data centre is accounting for 200 TWh per year in terms of energy consumption, which is about 1 per cent of the total electricity demand worldwide.
Talking about the three steps to sustainability, Ian Bitterlin, Consulting Engineer and formerly Visiting Professor at University of Leeds, stated that the industry is addressing the problem in a reverse manner when trying to push data centres to apply renewable energy rather than address the other two concerns, namely consumption reduction and process improvement.
“We’re pretending to ourselves that just having a renewable energy powered data centre is sustainable,” Bitterlin said. “It’s legal, it seems to be acceptable but it’s kind of unethical in what we are doing to the environment.”
So, what is the solution? “The first thing you should do is to increase the utilisation of data centres,” he said.
Holistic approach needed
Addressing this challenge at W.Media’s Digital Week in South East Asia 2021, PS Lee, Deputy Executive Director at Energy Studies Institute, explored three key factors affecting the efficiency and carbon footprint of data centres, namely location, IT load, and energy efficiency.
A geographical location that experiences extreme temperatures will consume more energy as the data centre physical infrastructure system has to work harder to maintain consistent moderate temperature and humidity levels. The local source of power generation also has a major impact on the data centre’s carbon footprint.
Regarding IT load, market watchers believe that it is the total power that all IT equipment in a data centre consumes, ranging from servers, routers, computer storage and networking, as well as the security system fire and monitoring system that protects them.
“The higher the IT load, the more power will be actually required to keep it up and to run in a higher carbon footprint,” he explained. “If you can start with operating the IT infrastructure more efficiently, then that would improve the overall energy consumption or reduce the carbon footprint.”
The traditional practices in data centres, which involves oversized physical infrastructure to support the IT load, has a negative impact on the overall data centre efficiency. Lee underlined that it results in under-utilisation of equipment, such as servers plugged in 24 hours a day without fully utilised.
“It should be more of a holistic solution mix,” said PS Lee, Deputy Executive Director at Energy Studies Institute.
A local zoom-in and a broader outlook
“Local context is extremely important,” added Lee. He gave an example of the limited landmass in Singapore. While maintaining its larger share and status as the key data centre hub in the ASEAN region, Singapore cannot deploy solar in the country.
“But that doesn’t mean we have to stop looking into this possibility,” he added.
To further the discussion on solutions, he suggested several other technology options in Singapore to decarbonise data centres, including chiller-less high-efficiency liquid cooling system by NUS and Coolest DC, liquid immersion cooling system by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and chip integrated liquid cooling solution for data centres by Institute of Microelectronics (IME).
From a broader perspective, Valerie Choy, Regional Sales Manager at Schneider Electric Energy & Sustainability Services, stressed the importance of the data centre industry to address sustainability issues by affecting policy changes.
She observed that in the U.S. and Europe, renewable energy buying has gone far beyond data centre customers. However, in emerging markets, there is still a collective force that could drive policy changes and then benefit the wider industry players.
“It shouldn’t be just data centre,” said Choy. “Every industry needs to decarbonise.”