John Booth MBCS, Data Centre Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Consultant at Carbon3IT, explores the detrimental trajectory of data centre energy use, against a backdrop of COP26, climate change and proposed EU directives.

Following on from my BCS ITNOW article published in the spring 2021 Edition, A new European roadmap to cleaner, greener, data centres, where I mentioned the EU Green Deal, the standards and a glimpse into a possible more entwined smart city / data centre concept; there has been some significant movement in terms of the IPCC AR 6 Physical Science Basis Report, published in August, the Climate Neutral Data Centre pact, the publication of the EU ‘Fit for 55’ proposals, and the impending COP26 which lead to a requirement to provide an update to the original article.

IPCC AR6 Physical Science Report

This report, coupled with some alarming weather events, such as the wildfires in Greece and the Western US, floods in London and Germany, temperature highs in Sicily (48°C+) and the publication of updated flood maps, clearly indicate that the planet is warming. Even today (late August 21), the fact that rain was reported as falling on the Greenland Ice Sheet - which in 70 years of reporting has NEVER happened before - is without doubt a WAKE UP CALL to humanity.

We must (to mitigate the worst forecasts) reduce greenhouse gas emissions, meaning we need to undertake 10 key steps:

  1. Phase out coal plants.
  2. Invest in clean energy and efficiency.
  3. Retrofit buildings.
  4. De-carbonise cement, steel and plastics.
  5. Shift to electric vehicles.
  6. Increase public transport.
  7. De-carbonise aviation and shipping.
  8. Halt deforestation and restore degraded lands.
  9. Reduce food loss and waste.
  10. Eat more plants and less meat.

The uncomfortable truth about data centres

However, in terms of data centres, I fear that this wake up call is falling on deaf ears. The forecasted and actual growth of data centres up to 2025 is truly alarming. Almost every day, there is a new announcement of an energy-hungry, water-guzzling data centre of 50MW, 100MW or more planned in all regions of the planet and all using 20th century design criteria.

We have to pause and have a radical rethink, look at some of the innovations that are already out there, but not being taken up, such as immersed compute, energy flexibility, waste heat reuse, consider the power and cooling side - and build, design and operate truly sustainable data centres.

Some operators are already waking up to the climate emergency and have made some improvements. Many now cite the use of renewable energy for their operations, but these are via virtual power purchase agreements, where renewable energy elsewhere is put into the grid on their behalf whilst they continue to use the local grids - so a form of ‘offsetting’, some use energy efficient equipment, which is laudable, but there is a lot more that could be done.

One mechanism that could spark some recognition that we are in a climate emergency is the...

Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact

Following the EU announcement, in February 2020, that ‘data centres / telecommunications can and should be carbon neutral by 2030’, and that regulations could be in the offing, it was clear that the commercial sector (that is the cloud and co-location providers) were extremely concerned as to the nature of what those regulations could be, and (in what some may say was a desperate attempt to stave off regulation), set up the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact (CNDCP) in January 2021. This was to be a ‘self-regulatory’ initiative with reports sent to the European Commission (EC) on a regular basis.

The pact consists of five pillars: energy efficiency (based on PUE targets), clean energy, water (based on WUE/WUEs), circular economy, (reuse, recycle of ICT equipment) and circular energy system (in effect, waste heat reuse).

At the time of writing, there were 22 EU trade associations and 57 data centre operators listed as signatories to the pact. Formal (and informal) meetings have been taking place between the EC, the pact and other interested parties, including a gathering of independent consultants for a workshop to discuss various proposals presented by three independent consultancies to the EC.

The ‘workshop’

In June 21, a workshop (held virtually), triggered by consultants working for the EC, proposed a number of policy options for the EC to consider for data centre energy efficiency and sustainability, these included:

  1. Changes to the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) (which I covered in the original article) to introduce ‘quantitative energy efficiency goals, tier-system label indicating the adoption rate of the best practices, establishment of third-party monitoring for participants and the development of tools to increase participation, consisting of an online reporting tool, the contacting of smaller data centres and a communications strategy.
  2. Making the green public procurement (an existing series of best practices based on the EU Code of Conduct for Data Centres (Energy Efficiency) as well as some sustainability best practices, mandatory for public authorities.
  3. Updating the eco-design regulations on servers.
  4. Sustainable Finance Taxonomy (SFT), linking the issuance of green bonds to specific data centre energy efficiency measures, that would be mandatory for financial institutions and large companies (voluntary for other organisations).
  5. Self-Regulation Initiative, which would be inspired by the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, but perhaps with labelling and certification.
  6. European Data Centre Registry, which would record location, services provided, energy consumption, share of renewable energy, GHG emissions and circular economy practices.

Each proposal was put to a vote and the order was very interesting, (1) EUCOC strengthening, (2) EU Data Centre Registry, (3) Eco-Design (4) GPP, (5) SFT and finally (6) the Self-Regulation Initiative. My impression was that the EC had lost patience with the sector and that regulations were all but assured.

Fit for 55

In August, the EC published a series of proposals which included various statements on data centres, the first was in a recast of the Energy Efficiency Directive:

‘Another important sector... is the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, which is responsible for 5-9% of the world's total electricity use and more than 2% of all emissions. In 2018, the energy consumption of data centres in the Union was 76.8 TWh. This is expected to rise to 98.5 TWh by 2030 a 28% increase. This increase in absolute terms can as well be seen in relative terms: within the EU, data centres accounted for 2.7% of electricity demand in 2018 and will reach 3.21% by 2030, if development continues on the current trajectory. Europe’s Digital Strategy already highlighted the need for highly energy-efficient and sustainable data centres and transparency measures for telecoms operators on their environmental footprint.’

The directive goes on to talk about how member states must collect and publish data on energy performance and water footprint, to assess sustainability. There is also a desire to measure four basic dimensions of sustainability, namely, energy (from renewable sources), reuse of waste heat in freshwater; improvement in equipment, software and services; better sustainability in new data centre design; transparent evidence based planning and decision making.

‘To promote sustainable development in the ICT sector, particularly of data centres, Member States should collect and publish data, which is relevant for the energy performance and water footprint of data centres. Member States should collect and publish data only about data centres with a significant footprint, for which appropriate design or efficiency interventions, for new or existing installations respectively, can result in a considerable reduction of the energy and water consumption or in the reuse of waste heat in nearby facilities and heat networks. A data centre sustainability indicator can be established on the basis of that data collected’

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‘The data centre sustainability indicators can be used to measure four basic dimensions of a sustainable data centre, namely how efficiently it uses energy, how much of that energy comes from renewable energy sources, the reuse of any waste heat that it produces and the usage of freshwater. The data centre sustainability indicators should raise awareness amongst data centre owners and operators, manufactures of equipment, developers of software and services, users of data centre services at all levels as well as entities and organisations that deploy, use or procure cloud and data centre services.

It should also give confidence about the actual improvements following efforts and measures to increase the sustainability in new or existing data centres. Finally, it should be used as a basis for transparent and evidence-based planning and decision-making. Use of the data centre sustainability indicators should be optional for Member States.

Whilst the data collection of the four elements as listed above is merely a proposal, I believe that due to the CNDCP and the willingness of the operators to provide the data it will become a mandatory requirement. The question is what will the EC or member states DO with the information?

The standards

I mentioned the standards in the original article, namely the ISO/IEC 30134 series of data centre KPIs, the BS EN 50600 series and their impending elevation to a full ISO/IEC standard suite the 22237; these are probably going to be used by the EC or Member States as the verifiable reporting mechanism, so I’ve created a handy table below:

The 4 Dimensions The Standard Comments
Energy ISO/IEC 30134-2 PUE - Power Usage Effectiveness
Renewable Energy ISO/IEC 30134-3 REF - Renewable Energy Factor
Waste Heat Reuse ISO/IEC 30134-6 ERF - Energy Reuse Factor
Water ISO/IEC 30134-9 WUE - Water Utilisation Effectiveness/WUEs - Water Utilisation Effectiveness Source

 

Reporting

If you are a colocation or cloud provider, it is perfectly obvious that you will be required to provide the data to the appropriate authorities, you may even have to provide it to your customers (especially if they are a cloud provider hosted in a colocation site) or even to enterprise customers as they will need it (if they qualify) for the UK Streamlined Energy & Carbon Reporting Regulations (SECR).

It is imperative that all colocation and some enterprise data centres will have to install suitable monitoring equipment and a reporting regime (this could be via the ISO Management Standards, such as ISO 9001, ISO 14001, or ISO5001 or a combination).

Conclusion

The climate emergency is not going away. Green IT - especially if it can decarbonise itself - and data centres, are going to be crucial to our understanding of how the emergency may pan out. They will provide adaption and mitigation options for all sectors of society but we cannot expect to be allowed to continue to design, build and operate data centres with their roots in the 20th century, we must undertake that radical rethink and really innovate.

In the meantime, regulations will be applied, which will (hopefully) force that rethink, the reporting of energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, the reuse of data centre waste heat, the reducing use of water, etc. The tools for reporting are available, if we fail to use them, then we will be forced to use them.