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What going ‘green‘ means for the data centre industry?

Some large data centres use enough electricity in a year to power thousands of homes and it has been pointed out that data centres will account for one-fifth of global electrical consumption by 2025. While we can’t avoid the fact that data centre power consumption will continue to be an issue in the future, looks at how vendors and operators are now placing a focus on reducing their environmental impact. READ MORE…

For years, talk about data centres revolved around their ecological footprint and in particular, their shortcomings in failing to address the various industry options available in fixing the problem. It is well known that the data centre industry is the driving force behind the world‘s ever-accelerating digitalisation, managing the flow of information that is vital to many of the cloud-based platforms and services we now rely on. These are crucial services that power vital points in our society’s day to day going-ons. However, they do require huge amounts of energy and electricity to run backups, servers, and power cooling infrastructure at optimal levels.

As climate change turns into a “hot“ topic, vendors and operators are noticing an increase in the energy efficiency output of data centres and in particular, a focus on reducing their environmental impact. As an example, the majority of large data centres out there use enough electricity in a year to power thousands of homes – that’s equivalent to almost 30 billion kilowatt hours – and it has been pointed out that data centres will account for one-fifth of global electrical consumption by 2025.

In response, the EU Commission recently applied pressure on data centre providers to take action and reduce their carbon footprints. In their 2020 report – ‘Shaping Europe’s digital future‘ – the EC says that the industry “can and should become climate neutral by 2030,” highlighting the need to “become more energy-efficient, reuse waste energy, and use more renewable energy sources.” With the data-serving requirements facing data centres only set to rise over the coming years, the onus is on the industry to keep up with this demand, while at the same time finding ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Delivering cooling solutions

A bit proportion of a data centre’s power requirements is cooling. A key component, in fact, the primary source of energy consumption in most conventional data centres, with up to 40% of electricity usage going towards sustaining and operating a server below 26 degrees celsius. As such, maintaining temperature and humidity conditions at a level that enables IT hardware to operate effectively leaves a significant carbon footprint. However, the importance of cooling isn‘t something that can be ignored. Overheating can impact performance in a negative way, and can permanently damage hardware, making it vital that businesses find the right solution – one that meets their needs while also addressing the sustainability issue. 

Of course, this is not just about how power is used. Any energy efficiency discussion must also address how power is generated. The challenge here is that going ‘green’ isn’t as easy as it first seems. Energy produced through green initiatives tends to be more expensive than standard energy, which means that sustainable alternatives must consume less energy so that organisations aren’t left out of pocket. The various voltages used in the transmission and distribution of energy are known to result in some efficiency losses, so data centres that focus on optimising their energy consumption have an opportunity to realise significant cost savings – which can be passed on to customers.

Hydroelectric plants can be used to harness the power of flowing water to generate energy in a sustainable and cost-efficient way. In addition, one way to reduce energy consumption is to replace traditional cooling solutions with geothermal systems that make use of the cold water found underground. This is what is used to power the entire air-conditioning system for the data rooms across Aruba’s Global Cloud Data Centre campus, making the system extremely energy efficient. The rack cabinets housing the servers are also equipped with an innovative cold air containment system to guarantee maximum energy efficiency and a comfortable working environment. 

A green efficient deal

The natural cooling system provides a clear example of how data centres can drastically cut down the quantity of energy they use, reducing the overall cost and increasing sustainability by making better use of the energy available to them. 

And there are plenty of innovations happening across the industry that highlight the benefit of natural cooling in reducing the carbon footprint. According to a survey published by The Green Grid, a non-profit consortium working to improve data centre energy efficiency, nearly 50% of US-based data centres are now using natural cooling to save energy and costs, with another 25% considering doing so in the near future. And this doesn’t just apply to areas with extreme weather conditions, as illustrated by consulting company Capgemini. It recently opened a data centre in Swindon in the UK that has used natural cooling to reduce running costs by 80% and cut carbon emissions in half.

But, despite progress being made, the industry can’t afford to stand still. The progression of energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly solutions requires an ongoing industry-wide effort from vendors and operators alike. Although big strides have been made in demonstrating that energy-efficient solutions and practices can be implemented effectively, there needs to be a concerted effort in tackling this on a global scale. This is where industry initiatives such as The Green Grid and the ‘European Code of Conduct’ for data centres, along with other industry standards and certifications for energy efficient operations, are so important. Although  we can’t avoid the fact that data centre power consumption will continue to be an issue in the future, we can invest in new ways to achieve maximum energy efficiency on a wide-industry scale, all while reducing costs and protecting the environment.

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