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How to beat the heat: What can datacentre operators do to meet emissions targets?

With new mandates around sustainability proliferating, datacentres must find ways to meet their environmental goals while remaining competitive and meeting customer service-level expectations

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Datacentres have their work cut out in managing their emissions. After all, the capital expenditures of Amazon and TSMC are now five times and twice the size, respectively, of Exxon-Mobil’s, with that global growth in power, processing and storage requirements in train.

John Booth, managing director at green IT consultancy Carbon3IT, warns there is a long way to go yet. “What datacentres should be doing is a long way from what they are doing,” he says.

A datacentre powered by renewable energy can still be inefficient. Booth believes datacentres should be following the EU Code of Conduct (EUCOC) for Energy Efficiency in Data Centres, or the EN50600 TR 99-1, in full for best practice.

“Prudent EUCOC use can provide a wholesale strategic review of how ICT is delivered to users – and not just in the datacentre,” says Booth.

Max Schulze, executive chair at the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA), warns adopting renewables also often proves a “utilities nightmare” due to volatility, which can be incompatible with baseload demand.

And what’s not always mentioned is that things can only achieve a certain level of efficiency. Datacentres are always going to consume electricity and will likely never improve much on the power usage effectiveness (PUE) scores of 1.1-1.2 many are achieving today, Schulze points out.

“People love this problem of tuning this thing more and more – and a lot of people are making money on products and engineering services,” he explains. “Yet to get the last 20% down, you probably need to invest so much money and time, it doesn’t really make much sense.”

Instead, there’s hope in moves to make use of waste heat, such as an initiative in Reykjavik where water from the geothermal plant carries heat under the footpaths to homes and businesses, warming everything up as it goes.

“Instead of London buying a lot of very expensive heat pumps and building new grid connections, why are they not using the electrically generated heat [from] datacentres that are in London already?” says Schulze. “That heat is a very desirable resource and it makes sense.”

Movements in this direction are proceeding at a glacial pace. What might be needed to speed transformation in this area today is much better lobbying of governments, including by datacentre operators.

“Instead of London buying heat pumps and building new grid connections, why are they not using the electrically generated heat [from] datacentres that are in London already? That heat is a very desirable resource and it makes sense”
Max Schulze, SDIA

“We have two forces at play that are not healthy for us: politicians who really don’t understand how digital stuff works, even though everything is in a datacentre; and that you don’t have a datacentre lobby, which just blocks everything,” says Schulze.

“Cloud providers then say digitisation saves us so much carbon dioxide, which lets us forget about the infrastructure,” he adds.

The other big move that is required is in calculations around embedded carbon and total or ‘end-to-end’ carbon emissions. Making and implementing new hardware to support increasingly advanced software is costly in resource terms, and only a tiny proportion of that carbon footprint is understood.

“Only one major vendor has released one carbon footprint for one server, out of their many server models, over the past five years. And most of that was from the electricity and was not very accurate,” says Schulze. “There’s a massive footprint they don’t talk about.”

Software developers and users also should be held accountable, he adds.

Why not build future datacentres next to the transformer stations where offshore wind cables arrive? Instead of getting [the energy] to London, why doesn’t more, or all, of London’s industry go to where the renewable energy can be provided? Other resources would be cheaper too, and energy companies should be helping to fund this.

“That would be very relevant in the UK, especially if expanding your offshore wind [consumption],” says Schulze.

Making the change in the datacentre

“The first thing I would do is hire an engineering consulting firm or find my own engineers and ask what it would cost to take the heat out of the datacentre, and perform a proper analysis, including how viable that is and whether government help is needed,” says Schulze. “Then I would aim to [make] our power consumption [more flexible].”

Amanda Brock, chief executive of open source group OpenUK, has worked with Schulze on a datacentre design project that involved repurposing derelict buildings at the network edge.

“It has to shift a little bit away from the economics and into the bigger picture,” Brock agrees. “But datacentre companies don’t need to be quaking in their boots, because clearly we need data processing – it’s more about how we do it.”

Infrastructure must be redesigned with sustainability at its heart, incorporating thoughts on edge and open source technology benefits to change what’s being provisioned in existing datacentres and reduce or make demand more flexible where it makes sense to do so.

And yes, certain shifts will require legislation as well as different values and “broader citizenship” of entities that benefit from GDP and growth.

“There needs to be a more balanced scorecard, I suppose,” says Brocks. “We need to make sure we have digital infrastructure built in the best way it can be.”

Carolina Uribe, energy and environmental manager at colocation provider Telehouse, recommends a collective laying out of “achievable and reasonable” targets incorporated into operator business plans and developing renewables-powered resource-efficient facilities, which will require government investment.

Decarbonisation across supply chains and targeting of Scope 3 or embodied carbon emissions is also needed, she agrees. Operators will need to work closely with suppliers and customers, and a clear sustainability roadmap is needed.

Scope 3 emissions, as defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, are those generated indirectly by activities – such as manufacturing, commuting, hardware disposal – that occur in an organisation’s wider value chain.

Activities that fall under the Scope 3 category are usually the largest source of emissions for companies, but also among the most difficult to track and quantify.

Sustainability disclosure requirements (SDRs) introduced in 2021 mean all major UK corporates and financial institutions are now subject to climate reporting, with other sectors to follow, says Uribe. “Operators should start to ensure they quantify their emissions, improve transparency, and support and fund projects in sustainability.”

Jon Healy, operations director at consultancy Keysource, notes large gains are going to be a “a bit of a journey” for operators, with new regulation encouraging an earlier start even if really strong results could be years away.

“Take the baby steps. Establish what is being consumed,” urges Healy. “For a lot of people, it’s about trying to get a handle on it.”

Calculating embodied carbon can be difficult, but increasingly, the tools are there, he maintains. It’s more possible than ever to track where things have come from. With integrated technologies, organisations will increasingly see right through their supply chain, from components to how items and services are transported to the user.

“And in terms of a percentage of that consumption, Scope 3 [emissions] represents a huge amount. So you’re now able to make a better or a bigger impact with informed decison-making,” says Healy. “Those that crack it can really differentiate themselves in the market.”

Action needed now

In November 2021, adviser Coeus Consulting asked 218 firms in a range of industries about sustainability targets, with most confirming they have an IT sustainability strategy and see sustainability as a key IT objective, with sustainability budgets rising in the next three years.

Adam Bradshaw, commercial director at colocation provider ServerChoice, says scope for datacentres to fuel up with renewable energy sources has also increased, potentially helping spread risk.

“The era of throwing more energy and water at the problem is clearly coming to an end and won’t sustain continuously increasing chip densities and demanding applications”
Pol Valls, Submer

“Among diesel alternatives, previously known for its unreliability, hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) can now power datacentre generators with burning efficiency offering the same level of resilience as traditional fossil fuels, while eliminating 90% of net CO2 output,” says Bradshaw.

Pol Valls, co-founder of datacentre immersion cooling provider Submer, echoes many of these comments, arguing that datacentre operators should be getting familiar with future-proof sustainable technologies that enable the next generation of computing, while enabling efficiency and circular models like heat re-use.

“The era of throwing more energy and water at the problem is clearly coming to an end and won’t sustain continuously increasing chip densities and demanding applications,” Valls notes.

Pankaj Sharma is executive vice-president at Schneider Electric, which has invested a lot in sustainability initiatives, including power and cooling developments. “The datacentre industry is in a pretty massive transformation,” says Sharma. “In the past, it was basically about PUE. Now there are other critical parameters linked to the overall sustainability of datacentres.”

From a datacentre, physical infrastructure and software perspective, there are five key impacts for consideration: energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water, waste creation, then land and biodiversity or location. Not everybody is able to fix all those, but probably improvements can be made in two or three of those five, he says.

Modelling and digital twinning of the environment can help pinpoint areas to address, Sharma points out, adding that government-level strategies should also be considering pricing that encourages organisations towards more sustainable choices.

Having a larger impact by working closely with governments is a good example,” he says. “The role of lobbying is going to become more important.”

None of that lets datacentre providers off the hook today, however, as moving towards more renewables, better cooling, and working out how to process and storage more with less remains important.

For example, Lee Myall, chief executive at colocation provider Kao Data, says its new datacentre in Slough offers data-intensive capacity in a fully renewables-powered infrastructure.

Free air cooling has helped Kao sustain PUEs of 1.2 or lower even on partial loads, and Kao’s overall package of sustainability initiatives and certifications, including HVO-powered backup generation, appeals to customers – not least because other organisations are also under pressure to reduce emissions.

“If you can build from the ground up, fantastic. But if you buy an existing building, you can still turn it into something that’s sustainable,” says Myall.

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