Going green: Boosting the sustainability of Europe's booming datacentre market

In this guest post, Jens Struckmeier, founder and CTO of cloud service provider Cloud&Heat Technologies, shares his views on the ecological and technological challenges caused by Europe’s booming datacentre market.

People have become accustomed to many digital conveniences, thanks to the emergence of Netflix, Spotify, Alexa and YouTube. What many may not know is that with every crime series they stream online, they generate data streams that also gnaw on our environment due to their energy consumption.

Most of the data generated in this way flows through the cloud, which is made up of high-performance datacentres that relieve local devices of most of the computing work. These clouds now account for almost 90 percent of global data traffic. More and better cloud services also mean more and more powerful data centres. These in turn consume a lot of energy and generate a lot of waste heat – this is not a good development from an ecological and economic point of view.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) with its datacentres now account for three-to-four percent of the world’s electric power consumption, estimates the London research department of Savills. Furthermore, from a global perspective, it is thought they consume more than 416 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity a year – about as much as the whole of France. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI), the digitalisation of public administration, and the fully automated networked factories of industry 4.0 are likely to generate data floods far beyond today’s levels.

According to Cisco, global data traffic will almost double to 278 exabytes per month by 2021. This means that even more datacentres will be created or upgraded, with a trend towards particularly large, so-called hyperscale datacentres with thousands of servers.

Why datacentre location matters

In competitive terms, the rural regions of Northern Europe benefit from these trends. In cool regions such as Scandinavia, power is available in large quantities and at low cost.

Additionally, the trend towards hyperscale datacentres means the demand for decentralised datacentres near locations where the processed data is also needed is growing. If the next cloud is physically only a few miles away, there are only short delays between action and reaction, and the risk of failure is also reduced.

With a volume of over £20 billion, the UK is Europe’s largest target market for datacentre equipment. When all construction and infrastructure expenses are added together, Savills estimates that 41% of all investments in the UK were made between 2007 and 2017.

The Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) estimates annual growth at around 8%. There are currently 412 facilities of different sizes, followed by Germany with 405 and France with 259. For comparison: 2,176 data centres are concentrated in the home country of the Internet Economy, the USA.

In a comparison of European metropolises, London is the capital of data centres. The location has twice the computing capacity of Frankfurt, the number two on the market. According to Savills, however, the pole position could change after the Brexit. Either way, London is likely to remain a magnet as an important financial and technology hub, with the location benefiting from existing ecosystems and major hubs such as Slough.

Environmental pressure on the rise

However, as the European leader in terms of location, the UK also has to deal particularly intensively with the energy and environmental challenges in this sector.

Overall, the larger datacentres consume around 2.47 terawatt hours a year, claims techUK. This corresponds to about 0.76 percent of total energy production in the UK. In London alone, capacities with a power consumption of 384 megawatts were installed in 2016, which corresponds roughly to the output of a medium-sized gas-fired power plant such as the Lynn Power Station in Norfolk.

In view of the strong ecological and economic challenges associated with this development, around 130 data centre operators have joined the Climate Change Agreement (CCA) for datacentres.

In this agreement, they voluntarily commit themselves to improving the power usage effectiveness (PUE) of their facilities by 15 percent by 2023.

PUE stands for the ratio between the total energy fed into the grid and the energy consumption of the computer infrastructure itself. In the UK, the average PUE is around 1.9: almost twice as much energy is used for cooling the data centres as for actual operation.

Smarter power use

There are several ways to use this energy more intelligently: while older, smaller datacentres are often air- or water-cooled, resource-conscious operators rely on thermally more effective hot water-cooling systems.

The computer racks are not cooled with mechanically tempered water or air, but with water that is 40 degrees warm, for example, and the cooling process makes it five degrees warmer, for example. In the northern parts of Europe, where the outside temperature hardly ever rises above 40 degrees, the water can then quite simply be cooled down to the inlet temperature outside.

Because water or air do not have to be cooled down mechanically, the energy savings are significant: Compared to the cold-water version, hot water cooling consumes up to 77 percent less electricity, depending on the selected inlet temperature and system technology.

The benefits of datacentre heat reuse

Modern technological approaches make it possible to utilise waste heat from datacentres that has previously been cooled away in a costly and time-consuming process. Engineers link the cooling circuits of the racks directly with the heating systems of office or residential buildings.

Power guzzlers can thus become heating and power stations for cities, which in future will not only be climate-neutral but also climate-positive. This not only saves energy and money, but also significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

If all datacentres in the UK were to use this technology, up to 530,000 tons of carbon dioxide could be saved annually. This would correspond to 7,500 football pitches full of trees or a forest the size of Ipswich. 

Green datacentres and Sadiq Khan’s environmental goals

Many market analysts and scientists are convinced that these solutions will also have a political resonance, as they open fascinating new scope for local solutions and regional providers.

This is ensured by internet law and data protection regulations, but also by technological necessities. It is foreseeable, for example, that concepts such as edge cloud computing, fog computing and the latency constraints mentioned will soon make mobile and local micro supercomputers take over some of the tasks of traditional mainframe computing centres.

Market participants who are prepared to face all these trends in good time are well advised. Digitalisation cannot be stopped – instead, it is necessary to actively shape a sustainable, green digital future.

The special role of datacentres in this digital change is becoming more and more relevant for society in general.

The ambitious goals recently formulated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to reduce environmental pollution and carbon dioxide emissions will be a real challenge for operators.

By 2020, for example, all real estate will use only renewable energy. By 2050, London is to become a city that no longer emits any additional carbon dioxide. Datacentre operators will inevitably have to rely on sustainable, energy-efficient technologies.

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