Data centres are an essential part of the modern economy, providing vital infrastructure for countless businesses all over the world, writes David Watkins, Solutions Director for VIRTUS Data Centres. But, 24/7 connectivity can be a huge drain on energy resources.

As a result, making data centres more sustainable is high on the agenda of most governments, industry bodies and businesses all over the world. In Europe, the EU Commission asserts that the sector can and should be carbon neutral by 2030 and is urging data centre providers to take appropriate steps to achieve this goal.

Fortunately, many data centre operators are already realising that their energy consumption cannot continue to rise indefinitely and are committed to making their facilities more environmentally friendly. Given the increasing demand for data centre facilities, due to business and consumer demand, how are they achieving their sustainability ambitions whilst maintaining a high-quality service?

Harnessing renewable energy

In the past, green power has been difficult and complicated to procure and often required hyperscale cloud provider-sized budgets to do so successfully. However, as the world’s largest companies have found ways to make renewable energy projects work, they have been able to publicise their processes and, in collaboration with organisations such as the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), has successfully driven awareness to other organisations looking to get involved.

Renewable energy brokers have played a significant role in both awareness and reducing complexity with regards to identifying the potential projects that need funding, as well as demonstrating to organisations how they can engage in the financial backing process. Many of these brokers have active deal pipelines that buyers can use to identify renewable energy projects that fit their vision, goals, and capacity needs.

Green initiatives for the 21st century

Thanks to initiatives like these, renewable energy is now on the rise, and the data centre industry is benefitting. Supplies from renewable power, including wind, solar and hydro are on-track to surpass supplies of gas, oil and coal-fired stations in the near future. in the UK, according to Greenpeace, 76.5% of the electricity purchased by commercial data centre operators is 100% certified renewable and a further 10% is purchased according to customer requirement, which increasingly means renewable, taking that total up further.

A good example of this at work is a campus in the southwestern tip of Iceland, which runs almost entirely on geothermal and hydroelectric power. The Icelandic data centre owners claim theirs to be the world's first carbon-neutral data centre, and the industry is suitably impressed. BMW has already moved a large portion of its German clusters to the campus, and more organisations look set to follow. Australia, too, is rising to the green challenge in terms of renewable energy - a data centre in Port Melbourne now includes one of Australia's biggest solar arrays for generating its own power, providing customers with the opportunity to choose 100% renewable power for their IT infrastructure.

In the UK, VIRTUS Data Centres is seeing the benefits of renewable energy use. All of the energy consumed at its facilities is from 100% renewable sources thanks to partnerships with companies like Bryt Energy who generates power from wind, solar and tidal sources. By doing this, VITRUS saves around 45,000,000 tonnes of CO2 every year, which is enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over. What's more, it’s this commitment which is crucial in helping the company work towards its own goal of decarbonisation by 2025.

As well as the environmental benefits, there is clearly a commercial advantage too - as customers now proactively look for providers with green credentials and select those who harness renewable energy successfully.

Green-energy or a case of ‘green washing’?

For data centre providers in the UK looking to capitalise on renewable energy usage, Ofgem’s Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin (REGO) scheme has been an important development. A REGO certificate is meant to prove the renewable source of the energy provided, offering reassurance to purchasers. However, it should be noted that, according to Good Energy, it is possible for suppliers to trade and purchase REGOs without purchasing the renewably-sourced electricity - and, by stocking up on REGOs, companies can claim to offer 100% renewable energy tariffs without holding contracts with renewable producers.

Natural cooling in colder climates

Cooling is a notoriously energy hungry element of making data centres work. As much as 40% of power delivered to a facility is likely to be used for cooling and other ancillary functions rather than being delivered to the IT equipment within it. This energy is not being wasted because it is used to maintain conditions of temperature and humidity within which the IT hardware can be guaranteed to operate reliably. However, it is not productive energy, and data centre operators strive to minimise it.

One way that data centres are becoming more sustainable is by using natural air cooling instead of high-energy mechanical units. Many servers are now being manufactured that can operate at temperatures as high as 27°C, so natural air cooling has become a more viable option for data centres in a range of locations.

Taking this a step further, Google’s data centre in Hamina, Finland uses the surrounding sea water to power its cooling system. Facebook has also adopted a cooling system that uses natural resources for cooling. At its Lulea, Sweden data centre, Facebook uses the chilly outside air to ensure its equipment is kept at the optimum temperature.

Clever cooling in warmer countries

Here in “warmer” climes, VIRTUS Data Centres is continually looking at how to optimise cooling. To keep its facilities as efficient as possible, the company uses a variety of innovative design elements for greater efficiency whilst actually lowering costs; this includes air flooded data halls, utilising hot aisle containment and cooling using a variety of industry leading technologies.

At VIRTUS’ LONDON2 data centre, a borehole was dug at the inception of the site so it can use natural water sources for cooling to reduce demand on the mains water supply. Combined with the local climate i.e. if the temperature is below a certain level, the air in the data centre can be chilled without any mechanical cooling, and efficient cooling technology this delivers low Water Usage Efficiency (WUE) for the site. When you consider that all data centres operate 24 hours a day, using the natural cooler temperatures at night makes perfect sense.

An holistic approach

Full commitment to sustainability necessitates a “cradle to grave” approach - environmental ambitions must be built into every aspect of data centre construction and maintenance. This is why some experts refer to “shades of green”, where some providers are doing more than others, even though all claim that they’re environmentally friendly.

Building-in better design

When it comes to construction, BREEAM standards examine the green credentials of commercial buildings, verifying the performance of buildings and comparing them against sustainability benchmarks. BREAAM certified buildings provide more sustainable environments that enhance the well-being of the people who live and work within them, help protect natural resources and make for more attractive property investments.

By adhering to BREEAM standards, data centre providers can lead with energy efficient and effective design from the start, adopting the latest in building technologies and sustainable sourcing of materials for these buildings - ensuring a smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water.

Smarter electricity use

Once a building is up and running, there are plenty of every day concerns to address too. Highly efficient UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) systems, for example, have the ability to hibernate parts of the system when they aren’t being used - saving on unnecessary power use.

Current USPs often have several modes of operation, one of which is the eco mode. This setting is the most efficient and can significantly improve data centre efficiency and power usage effectiveness (PUE). In fact, GE’s SG Series UPS is touted as increasing efficiency up to 99% in multi-mode operation. Eco mode was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR specification for USPs - and in addition, it has been endorsed by The Green Grid, a leader in efficient information technology.

Seeing the bigger picture of sustainability

Truly committed providers don’t just look at running the site, but adjunct areas too. This includes how staff are getting to and from the data centre and transport links optimising the use of public transport and installing charging points for electric vehicles.

Today, the data centre is the lynchpin of the digital economy and businesses and as society continues to demand new technologies, so the need to process and share data, will only increase. In turn, the power needed to keep the data centres up and running will also grow.

The challenges of global pandemic

There is also a particular demand to contend with right now - the coronavirus pandemic. Digital technologies are being relied upon now, more than ever, for remote working tools, streaming and online entertainment, healthcare and more. Again, data centres are behind the “invisible infrastructure” responsible for powering these services.

There is plenty of discussion around how data centre providers are addressing the spikes in traffic and what they are doing to keep everything up and running during a time of crisis. And importantly we’re now seeing data centre providers working hard to marry their desire of delivering a robust and uninterrupted service with green ambitions and commitments.

Plenty of good work is already happening, but there is still more to be done, and the industry needs to redouble its efforts if it is to help secure an environmentally sustainable future.

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