By David Watkins, Solutions Director for VIRTUS Data Centres.
You don’t need to be a data centre expert to know that the industry has a reputation of being power-hungry and having a significant impact on the environment. But, beyond the headlines, there is plenty of positive work being implemented in the industry to improve sustainability. Today’s data centres are expanding their use of renewable energy, harnessing innovative approaches to cooling and employing other efficiency-enhancing methods to meet green ambitions and minimise their impact on the environment.
What’s more, data centre providers are committed to substantiating their work in this arena through standards and certifications – such as Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (or BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). And, operators and trade associations alike have committed to the European Green Deal, promising to make data centres climate neutral by 2030.
There’s lots of progress to celebrate, but what’s next for sustainability initiatives? What else should data centre operators be doing to further reduce their environmental impact?
A need to ‘prove’ your green credentials
In the past, the data centre industry has been suspected of ‘green-washing’, where providers have been accused of using sustainability as a ‘PR tactic’ rather than making significant changes to their operations.
In the year ahead, we’re likely to see providers look outside of their own operations in order to ‘prove’ the extent of their green credentials. Until now, some companies have successfully tackled their Scope 1 emissions (those from owned or controlled sources) and their Scope 2 emissions (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling). However, a major focus in the year ahead will be tackling Scope 3 emissions, which include the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain such as business travel, purchased goods and services, waste disposal and even employee commuting.
By measuring Scope 3 emissions, data centre providers will be able to assess where the emission hotspots are in their supply chain and identify energy efficiency and cost reduction opportunities. The next step would be to engage suppliers and assist them with implementing sustainability initiatives.
The super-charged circular economy
The idea of a circular economy isn’t new, but the ‘‘maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle” model is likely to become even more prevalent in the months ahead.
From committing to get more life out of all materials in a data centre (maintaining equipment) to refurbishing hardware where possible, and then recycling parts that can’t be reused, there are benefits to be had. It’s likely that many more providers will adopt the principles in the months ahead. But establishing a circular economy isn’t without its challenges. Most pressingly, many data centre providers don’t own the IT equipment they host and so must rely on their customers to take a lead in adopting the circular approach.
We’re also likely to see a sustained effort from data centre providers to educate and encourage partners and customers to embrace the model. The wider industry should work together to move away from solely focusing on IT hardware and apply the same principles to the entire infrastructure of a facility – something that data centre providers can manage and influence.
An evolving journey
As well as these new initiatives, there is likely to be an evolution of current practices; new technology innovations and ways of thinking to further the good work that is already being done.
For example, the ability of data centre providers to harness renewable energy sources has been game-changing in the industry’s pursuit of a greener future. Many providers, such as VIRTUS, are already using 100% renewable energy to power their facilities from sources like hydro, wind and solar. Fortunately for sustainability, renewable energy is now not only more affordable than fossil fuels, but can also be more reliable.
Data centre providers have also been looking closely at the fuel sources they use and significant progress is being made. The use of Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil instead of diesel in generators has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90% as well as eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions and reduce harmful nitrogen oxides.
And there’s plenty of innovation happening which promises to pay dividends in the long term. Technological developments in areas such as fuel cells are continuing at a pace – and while they’re not viable right now, if they can perform at scale they might present a compelling option for future green data centre power.
A commitment to collaboration
Lastly, while individual providers are working hard to innovate and progress against their green ambitions, ultimately we know that the industry must work together to solve its ongoing sustainability challenges.
In the years ahead we will see more collaboration across the industry; from sharing best practices to setting up multi-party task forces to boost initiatives and drive progress. It’s also likely we’ll see international collaboration as providers look at the progress being made across the globe and emulate best practices. Indeed, most experts agree that it’s only by working together that we will make the necessary steps to truly green this power-hungry industry.