Sustainable data centers aren’t optional anymore
Published 19 November 2020
Excessive energy consumption and resulting carbon emissions are causing detrimental effects on our health and environment.
Data centers pump out millions of carbon pollution metric tons every year, consuming around 2% of the world’s electricity. And with the rise of cloud computing and large hyperscale data centers, these numbers will only continue to grow if we don’t focus on sustainability practises, as data and digital services increasingly become a necessity of life.
In only four years, colocation and wholesale data center capacity is projected to grow by 35.2%, exceeding 32 gigawatts of electrical power available to customer IT systems, which is similar to the total electricity needs of a country like Spain.
This is why more eyes are on the data center industry to lower their environmental impacts and answer to regulators, governments and the public, who are becoming more environmentally conscious than ever before.
Fortunately, Schneider Electric and 451 Research have found that 57% of data center service providers around the globe believe efficiency and sustainability will be highly important competitive differentiators in three years.
“Sustainability seems to be top of mind in data center circles at this moment in time. What was very, very clear was that sustainability really isn’t an option anymore,” said Paul Tyrer, the VP of Cloud and Service Provider Segment for APAC at Schneider Electric.
A large majority of the surveyed data center providers either said they have a strategic sustainability program in place to comprehensively improve the way they design, build and operate infrastructure (43%) or a major, but not comprehensive, sustainability program in place to improve some areas of design, construction and operations (41%).
“I think the fact that we’re talking about sustainability, and the fact that 43% of the respondents in our survey have actually got a comprehensive program, shows that we are most definitely on the right track and there is a desire for it,” said Mr. Tyrer.
Mr. Tyrer identified the data center industry has been on a sustainability journey for the last 10 years, with a predominant focus on increasing efficiency by lowering the power usage effectiveness (PUE) of the facilities and using less electrical energy.
“Has this always been done for sustainability reasons? No, it is done more for fiscal reasons. But we definitely stem the tide of exponential energy consumption. That is something we should be proud of, but the reality is that we are still consuming and generating a huge amount of carbon,” said Mr. Tyrer.
The current state of data center sustainability
From construction to operation, data centers create a significant carbon footprint, with manufacturers and subsuppliers contributing to the emissions.
“One of the things that did surprise us is the lower percentage that actually had a true end to end belts and braces sustainability program involving design, build, and operation. Those that do have a program are on the front foot and have most definitely got a competitive advantage,” said Mr. Tyrer.
One of the biggest consumers of electricity in the data center is the cooling equipment to keep servers running at an optimum temperature. This is an area that Schneider Electric spends time in driving more efficient design and designing effective technology to either increase temperatures in the data center or reduce the amount of cooling needed in the facility.
“We have some very strong sustainability commitments that have been made publicly available. We precise these commitments very openly on our website where anyone can see all the initiatives we are taking and our progression against those stated goals,” said Mr. Tyrer.
With a commitment to reduce absolute scope one and two emissions by 100% and scope three by 35% by 2030, Schneider Electric also helps those in the data center industry by consulting with clients on setting up sustainability charters and programs, energy procurement and data center optimisation to make sure their facilities run as efficiently as possible.
“I talk to a lot of different operators and most of them acknowledge the need for sustainability. A significant portion can really articulate what they’re doing about it. But some quite frankly are quite a way behind and will need to catch up,” said Mr. Tyrer.
For those that are behind, this could be for a number of reasons, including moving at breakneck speed to make a name in the market, and a lack of personnel and resources.
In Asia, Mr. Tyrer identified pockets of explosive growth in secondary data center markets like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam where businesses are moving in at speed. This poses an additional challenge in adopting sustainable practices, as there may not be regulations, skilled workforces, resources, incentives or access to renewable resources.
“To really put in place a comprehensive sustainability program, it’s not something you just scratch out on the back of a notepad. It does require a lot of thought and consideration as to what you’re looking to do and why you’re looking to do it,” added Mr. Tyrer.
Large juggernauts in the data center industry like Google, Facebook and Microsoft along with Princeton Digital Group, SpaceDC, Keppel Data Centres and the National University of Singapore have all made moves to explore environmentally-friendly solutions and commit to sustainability goals, which can act as a catalyst for those in the industry that are falling behind to follow their lead and catch up.
“For those that are not taking sustainability seriously, I’d say they are being very short-sighted, because they could be incredibly busy building some very nice data centers and a very nice company, but it is going to run out of runway further down the line when this is no longer optional or nice to have. I’d say we are almost moving out of that mode today,” warned Mr. Tyrer.
To help these smaller organisations to make moves towards sustainability initiatives, Mr. Tyrer advises that the wider ecosystem of consultants, vendors and larger data center operators needs to step up and help them drive sustainability into the future.
“It’s a community that is an ecosystem that’s going to make this puzzle work, not just one or two individuals,” said Mr. Tyrer.
To this end, Schneider Electric created the Neo Network, a community of sustainability experts to advance reliable and cost-effective renewable energy solutions around the world.
What’s driving data center sustainability into the future?
In Schneider Electric’s recent report, cost savings was, in fact, not a primary driver of sustainability initiatives. Instead, it was customer requirements that have the strongest influence on the importance of sustainability initiatives, followed by long-term operational resiliency and public opinion.
“Colocation providers are an essential part of the scope three emissions of their clients, who have got very strict and ambitious sustainability goals, which the colocation provider has to respond to. Ultimately their clients are forcing them in that direction,” said Mr. Tyrer.
For resiliency, this relates to the long-term viability of data center assets by responding to legislation and adapting to changing climatic conditions in an era of extreme weather-related events, which could lead to major utility outages of energy and water. More than half of respondents are even reevaluating the selection of their technology based on changing climates.
To illustrate the importance of implementing sustainability direction sooner rather than later, Mr. Tyrer used the analogy of a carpenter who constantly keeps sawing away without taking the time to sharpen the saw. Eventually that saw will become blunter and totally ineffective.
Similar to the carpenter, the data center industry needs to do a reality check and embed sustainability in their operations before they become unstuck in the future when customers will choose not to work with an unsustainable facility.
However, Mr. Tyrer recognised that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect the whole data center industry to become fully compliant with carbon neutrality by a certain date, as many operators like retail colocation facilities deal with different clients, changing requirements and different IT loads, and different sawing equipment to use the analogy, making it more difficult to stick to a sustainability plan.
“It’s most definitely not an easy task, because most operators have existing fleets of data centers that they’ve built years ago, or they’ve got assets that they’ve acquired. It’s about setting a realistic goal – it’s not about putting these nice figures out there and saying this is where we’re going to be in 30 years time and forgetting about it,” said Mr. Tyrer.
“But, I come back to the point: make sure you take that saw out to sharpen it before you put it back in,” he advised.
What are the solutions?
Schneider Electric and 451 Research’s report revealed the top focus areas for sustainability improvement include optimising and upgrading power distribution, and optimising and upgrading data center cooling efficiency and infrastructure.
Half of respondents said their firm has adopted data center infrastructure management software to collect, normalise, monitor and analyse data for running an efficient data center, while 45% have an energy and sustainability platform in place. These tools are believed to to be essential in extending and optimising the lifecycle of a data centre facility, as well as predicting and monitoring system operations and resource efficiency.
“Management platforms are really helping the clients to optimise their data centers, and stop them doing unnecessary things in their data centers, which requires manpower and intervention, and this is where we are moving into machine learning and artificial intelligence,” said Mr. Tyrer.
Yet, 44% of respondents still do not generate reports to track metrics.
“If you haven’t already, get the monitoring system in place to extract the comprehension of how that data center is performing,” suggested Mr. Tyrer.
Once a monitoring system is in place, operators can begin a full audit on the performance of a data center. After that, an operator can identify any equipment or power trains that need upgrading, as well as the all-important operational aspects that can be highlighted for improvement.
Schneider Electric has a long tenure of providing the mechanical, electrical and automation solutions in data centers, from predictive management tools to their EcoStruxure for small and large data centers.
“The wrapper for all of that is the investment we’ve made in our energy and sustainability services practice. We have deployed over 2,100 engineers and consultants within our group that are talking to organisations in multiple segments,” said Mr. Tyrer.
But what about the cost it takes to implement these sustainable solutions? Of course, there will be a cost to enact a program and ensure a sustainable fleet of data centers.
“I think the biggest cost to organisations who are all working on long term business plans, the opportunity cost of not implementing sustainable solutions is far higher, because that asset will become obsolete far sooner than they would have originally planned,” Mr. Tyrer informed.
In total, Schneider Electric has secured energy contracts worth over US$30 billion to date and manage 128 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year.
“We’re all on this journey and we’re all learning together. We can pass not just our technology and equipment over to our clients, but that advice and knowledge we’ve gained over many a year,” said Mr. Tyrer.
What does the future hold for data center sustainability?
In an ideal world, the data center industry could reach a proud moment where carbon neutrality is achieved across scope one, two and three emissions.
“We are a long way from that, but I think that should be our noble goal that we are absolutely working towards,” said Mr. Tyrer.
To achieve this, the data center and IT industries could be a facilitator for a number of sustainability goals made by nations and businesses across the world through innovating automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that can be woven into multiple parts of the fabric of society.
“Whether that is the new smart grids, the data center industry and the wider IT industry is going to have to come up with a lot of the solutions that actually can enable that to happen. We’ve got a key part to play in the journey that countries are making and will be making over the coming years as they become more sustainable,” suggested Mr. Tyrer.
And with the increasing amount of electricity consumed by data centers, Mr. Tyrer envisions a future where the industry can procure renewable energy and generate new power for smaller businesses and other industries.
“If we’re just gobbling up the existing energy supply, what does that lead for the other industries? I think we’ve got a responsibility if we are using renewable energy as a source of reducing our carbon reductions, we need to think bigger and broader than just beyond our own requirements,” said Mr. Tyrer.
But there are a number of factors that could derail this future, including nations and governments being driven by economic prosperity.
“The pandemic is a great example of where governments could deprioritise the Paris Climate Agreement because it’s just not affordable. They may suffer as a nation, and may slow down their pace,” observed Mr. Tyrer.
So, to reach this ideal future, research and development needs to be invested in, whilst learning from entrepreneurial organisations that are already trailblazing the sustainability path.
“I’m the eternal optimist, I’d like to think we’re on the track and we’ll get there,” said Mr. Tyrer.
Serious commitments need to be made to reach a sustainable future we can be proud of, and encouragingly, Schneider Electric and 451 Research’s report shows the growing appetite to achieve this.
The ‘Multi-tenant data centres and sustainability: ambitions and reality’ report surveyed more than 800 data center service providers from the United States, China, India, Australia, France, United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Demark, and more.
Companies ranged in size from 10 to over 10,000+ employees, and with data center capacity from under 1 MW to more than 150 MW.
The intention of the research was to drill down and understand the reality and pervasiveness of sustainability for the data center industry, with the results showing very consistent findings across all regions: sustainability is no longer an option.
By Stuart Crowley, Editor, W.Media