If you are to believe the mainstream media headlines, 2022 has been a year when datacentres have had fingers firmly pointed in their direction as a major cause of power and water shortages, writes David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Datacentres.

The news that Thames Water was looking into the impact of datacentres on water supplies was closely followed by a story on house building purportedly being halted by datacentre-related electricity capacity issues. Both stories were somewhat sensationalised by the non-industry British media, with limited investigation into whether datacentres were actually the culprit for their accusations.

However, these kinds of accusations aren’t new, and the datacentre industry has often been misunderstood by the majority of the general public. But for those working in the industry, the past few months have further highlighted the lack of understanding of what datacentres are, how they operate and their critical importance to modern life; the stories shone a spotlight on how providers should better promote all the work that has and is being undertaken to mitigate datacentres’ environmental impact.

The truth is that the datacentre industry has long been committed to ensuring sustainability and efficiency, with providers working hard to use resources including power and water responsibly. Indeed, companies in the sector are committed to innovative sustainability and renewable strategies that include ‘green’ renewable sources of power, rainwater harvesting, zero water cooling systems, recycling, waste management and much more.

It’s important for people outside of the industry to recognise that datacentres are fundamental to the functioning of the economy and modern society – without them, businesses simply couldn’t operate.

So, what’s wrong with the headlines? And what sustainability myths need to be dispelled? Importantly, what is the industry doing to minimise its power and water use, and what will providers be doing in 2023 and beyond?

A sustainable approach to water cooling

It is critical that in order to keep datacentres working efficiently, effective cooling systems are vital to maintain optimum conditions in terms of temperature and humidity. What should be understood is that the water used for cooling systems is often sourced sustainably, from bore holes or using impurified water: NOT from the supply we rely upon for household use. Indeed, Thames Water is already working closely with datacentre providers to look at the possibility of using ‘raw water’ to cool their facilities entirely.

What’s more, many large datacentres use ‘closed loop’ chilled water systems, meaning that water is charged into the system during construction and then continually circulated within a facility, rather than needing new water consistently pumped into the building. A large-scale datacentre will be filled with around 360,000 litres of water initially, or the equivalent of a 25 metre swimming pool. Given this water is used as a ‘transport medium’ for heat, rather than being consumed, and that the average life span of a datacentre is upwards of 15 years and, despite what the headlines say, this is an incredibly efficient use of water.

Indirect evaporative cooling – which does require water periodically for adiabatic functionality – is more energy efficient so provides other benefits. This type of cooling uses fresh air from outside the building, which is filtered and then delivered into the facility for cooling purposes. It only requires the use of fans, so the overall energy consumption is lower. As outside temperatures rise, firstly compressors are brought on-line to provide additional cooling and only at high temperatures (24C or higher) is water consumed. Given that datacentres operate 24x7, and temperatures above 24C typically only occur for a few hours a day across a small number of months per year, water usage is minimised.

Today, adiabatic cooling makes up a relatively small percentage of the overall cooling infrastructure in the UK, but looking at 2023 and beyond, the sector is increasingly looking to deliver this method more widely, using alternative water sources without impacting mains supplies.

Immersion cooling systems is another technology that will be deployed more in the future. This involves bespoke IT hardware, that is immersed in dielectric liquids. The liquids are much better thermal conductors than air and water, and do not require as much supporting infrastructure to ensure the IT equipment stays at the right operating temperature. This is not suitable for standard IT equipment yet, but is an option for higher density computing requirements.

The truth about power consumption

Truth: the datacentre industry requires significant power. However, datacentre providers are making use of renewable energy sources – some using 100% renewable energy. Making it even more attractive, renewable energy is now not only more affordable than fossil fuels, but more reliable too.

Until recently, Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) were popular with datacentre providers. As we move into 2023, more providers will be embracing Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with renewable generation operators. These help to increase the availability of renewables and support the UK government’s net zero commitment.

What is perhaps less well-known is that datacentre investment is also leading to significant improvements to the mains grid; datacentres often direct funding the additional resources required, such as substations, to deliver the required power. The industry also has a long-term planning strategy to ensure capacity is available, so future power is secured ahead of time to limit clashes with local requirements. As the demand for energy increases with the transition to electric vehicles, grid enhancement is essential.

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Diesel powered generators continue to be the main source of standby energy for datacentres, but they are a focus area for sustainability improvements. Research to find alternative fuel sources, is ongoing and in the future, the use of hydrogenated 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 reducing harmful nitrogen oxides.

Other approaches are also being implemented where diesel is in use, such as remapping engines to run more efficiently and the addition of air scrubbers on exhaust systems which can reduce hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide and particulate matter by up to 90%. Hydrogen fuel cells are fast emerging as an alternative for providing standby power, and while not yet scalable to the levels required by a large datacentre yet, it can be used tactically within new builds – for example to support the office areas and is likely to become more widely used in years to come.

The need to do more

Despite what the mainstream media reports, many datacentre providers are demonstrably driving change and leading by example, showing other sectors that by harnessing the brightest minds and cutting-edge technology, it is possible to “green” even the most power intensive industry. This progress isn’t the industry making unsubstantiated claims it is evidenced by statistics. Currently, many experts estimate that data storage and transmission to and from datacentres use 1% of global electricity. But it should be recognised that this share has hardly changed since 2010, even though the number of internet users has doubled, and global internet traffic has increased 15-fold since.

So the misleading headlines are doing a disservice to an industry that is committed to boosting sustainability and mitigating its environmental impact. However, there is still work to be done and providers are setting themselves ambitious sustainability targets as they work to meet net zero obligations in the years ahead.

Many datacentres are laser focused on sustainability and in 2023 and beyond we will see even more resource and operational efficiencies, scalable datacentre designs and extensions on the lifecycle of technology through a circular economy. We will also see sustainability improvements in the wider partner network and supply chains of datacentre providers.