By David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres
As a growing number of organisations seek to become successful by taking advantage of today’s data-driven economy, the data centre is becoming recognised one of the most important pieces of business infrastructure. However, the energy hungry infrastructure which powers our digital lives is often regarded as a blight on the environment and at odds with businesses’ sustainability strategies.
Today, there are more than eight million data centres globally, which not only dispose of many metric tons of hardware every year, but which also account for around one to 1.5% of global power consumption, a proportion which is comparable with the level of carbon emissions of the airline industry. Experts agree that, if the industry doesn’t take action to reduce these numbers, it’s likely that the energy consumption of data centres could contribute to more than ten per cent of the world’s electricity supply in the next ten years.
As a result, greening the data centre is a hot topic for businesses – providers and consumers. However, while data centre efficiency should certainly be debated and discussed, it must also be recognised that providers have already made great strides from the legacy data centres of years past. In construction particularly, data centres are becoming increasingly environmentally sympathetic, with some providers able to boast impressive green credentials.
A holistic strategy
The most committed data centre providers are focused on meeting green targets by prioritising the delivery of a “cradle to grave” green strategy, where environmental ambitions are built into every step of construction and maintenance.
When it comes to building facilities, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) standards look at the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying their performance and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of categories, ranging from energy to ecology. Each of these categories address the most influential factors, including low impact design and carbon emissions reduction; design durability and resilience; adaption to climate change; and ecological value and biodiversity protection. As well as the commitment to meeting BREEAM specifications, many providers also employ a modular build methodology to deploy capacity as and when required. This drives up utilisation, and maximises efficiency (both from an operational and cost perspective).
Looking at plant management, there are now many technologies and methodologies which can be deployed to drive efficiency. Examples of this include highly efficient Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS), where unused capacity can “hibernate”’ to reduce electrical losses. CRAC (Computer Room Air Conditioner) units are typically equipped with variable speed fans, that will regulate in line with demand to reduce energy consumption. Pumps are equipped with variable speed drives, that again will regulate in line with demand to reduce consumption. And, chillers often have “free cooling” functionality, where within certain temperature ranges cooling can be provided at a lower level. Ground and air source heat pumps are also being deployed, along with local energy generation all making use of clean, naturally available resources.
Addressing the cost factor
For many in the technology industries, “green” has historically meant “expensive”. But this perception is simply no longer true. As green technologies develop and become more prevalent, demand is driving down price, making it much more affordable to be environmentally aware.
This is particularly evident when it comes to energy. In recent years the cost of hydrogen fuel cells has plummeted, to the point where they are an economically viable alternative for standby generation. And more widely, the cost of renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels. Indeed, on average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power costs less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and power purchase and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely.
In addition, green measures are supported by a number of governments around the world offering tax incentives to invest in environmentally conscious technology, in order to support carbon reduction targets at a national level.
The return on investment – the rewards of being green
Being a responsible operator with a demonstrated commitment to sustainability is not just the right thing to do, it is increasingly what customers are demanding, and can actually deliver commercial benefits for those who get it right.
As technologies develop, demand is driving price down, and it’s now not just more affordable to be environmentally aware, but potentially fiscally beneficial too. For example, reports show that infrastructure efficiency has improved by 16 per cent since 2014, demonstrating that where steps are taken to improve issues like heating and cooling, cost savings can be made.
In terms of customer expectations, renewable energy can pay dividends. Periods of electricity price surge or downtime associated with traditional energy sources can challenge providers to maintain service at the level that their users expect – whereas renewables are already demonstrating increased reliability. Furthermore, fixed pricing in renewable energy can help manage budget volatility – again important in meeting customer demand.
The clearest return on investment for companies who partner with green data centre providers is in cost savings and efficiencies. But there are wider issues at stake too. Helping to ensure that the internet, data use and smart technologies aren’t negatively impacting on the environment is a crucial tenet of fuelling a more sustainable world for the long-term. A connected planet, where remote working and e-commerce are the norm and public services are delivered online, is likely to help reduce pollution for everyone.