The data center industry is notorious for being a large energy consumer. Data centers provide services that operate and house much of the digital infrastructure, so they can consume large amounts of electricity and generate large amounts of heat. Data centers alone consume about 416 terawatts, which is 3% of the electricity generated worldwide. While there is already a lot of good work being done to make data centers more sustainable, some companies in the industry are taking further action to minimize their carbon footprint and improve energy efficiency with new innovations. It is clear that the search for ways needs to be accelerated. And the pressure is on. The EU Commission recently said that data centers “could and should be carbon neutral by 2030”.
Data center providers face unique challenges when it comes to building sustainability into their facilities. While data centres don’t generate waste or products like other industries, this high energy- and water-use sector faces unprecedented demand for sustainability measures, clean energy and efficient facilities.
The providers themselves are keen to be as sustainable as possible, and customers, too, are demanding it. Traditionally, the key question was whether facilities are reliable and secure. Now, customers want to know that the data centres they use are sustainable, and that they support their own sustainability goals; 62% of Oracle’s data centre power is certified as renewable; Google has been using 100% renewable energy since 2017; AWS has committed to be using 80% renewable energy by 2024, 100% by 2030 (potentially as early as 2025) and to be net zero carbon by 2040; Microsoft has been carbon neutral since 2012, and is committed to being carbon negative by 2030, and to remove all historical carbon generated since the company started in 1970’s, by 2050.
With a “green deadline” in sight, how can data centre providers meet ambitious sustainability targets while meeting customer needs? The most forward-thinking vendors are committed to implementing cradle-to-grave environmental strategies that incorporate environmental considerations into every stage of data center construction and maintenance. In fact, some providers give good examples here. Some have spent years striving to continually improve and reduce their carbon footprint compared to older facilities that would require significant modernization to become cleaner and more sustainable.
The first step for many providers is moving away from fossil fuels. Data centers are particularly well suited to benefit from renewable energy sources due to their stable power consumption. In fact, some providers have already achieved 100% zero-carbon energy in their buildings, resulting in lower carbon emissions, other types of pollutants, and greater cost efficiency. Google is another pioneer in this field. Large-scale procurement of wind and solar power has made Google the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy.
Renewable energy is and will continue to be an important part of CO2 reduction strategies
Emissions are different, but different places on earth require different approaches. It is also important to move beyond the simple ‘we must embrace renewable energy’ message to one that considers the nuances of location. For example, solar power is much more prevalent in the Middle East and parts of the United States than in Nordic countries. Other places have other options.
A good example is our campus in the southwestern tip of Iceland, where almost all of our electricity comes from geothermal and hydroelectric power.
Data center managers are reviewing facility management best practices to improve efficiency, such as installing evaporative cooling, indirect heat exchangers, rainwater collection, and air handling units. These methods not only improve the sustainability of data center operations, but also reduce the site’s reliance on local distribution networks.
There are many examples of operators implementing innovative initiatives. Facebook started in 2014 when he invented a system called Autoscale. This reduces the number of servers that need to run during off-peak hours, leading to energy savings of around 15%, for example. Additionally, some companies are using AI to adapt to weather and operating conditions to optimize internal cooling systems, reducing cooling energy consumption by approximately 40%. return on investment
While there is still work to be done for providers, there are significant benefits for providers with data center facilities committed to long-term sustainability efforts.
Perhaps the biggest payoff is cost savings. Green no longer means expensive.
Thanks to tax cuts, incentives and falling costs of renewable energy, going green becomes more affordable and even more cost-effective. But it’s more than just cost savings. In the short term, data center providers who can demonstrate solid sustainability strategies can quickly win. We can meet government mandates to care for the environment and also meet the sustainability needs of our customers. A large computer base can process far more data in an energy efficient manner than a small server in your own building.
We’ve seen great progress and many vendor efforts are paying off. However, not all data centers are the same, and even though all data centers have some level of green credentials, some data centers are significantly more environmentally friendly than others. It’s important to remember to be friendly. Customers should look into the details behind the ‘green’ message to ensure they are truly working with vendors who can support their current and future sustainability goals.