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Tackling Scope 3 emissions in materials to help meet datacentre climate goals

Fanciful carbon accounting practice might not help much with emissions reduction, but specific materials values are already on offer from steel makers and the like that can assist datacentre operators

While greenwashing continues to confuse and even block the best intended emissions reduction plans, a 495MW €3.5bn (£3bn) datacentre project in Portugal is making progress on Scope 3 accounting.

The Sines Project datacentre campus, which is the work of sustainable server farm developer Start Campus, is predicted to become one of the largest hyperscale sites of its kind on completion, with its developers claiming the location will be powered exclusively by renewable energy and benefit from ocean water-based cooling systems.

The campus aims to reduce carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions by 16%, based on Scope 3 calculations of emissions from its construction, with UK consultancy Carbon3IT overseeing this part of the project.

Nick Morris, carbon, sustainability and energy modelling lead at IT sustainability consultancy Carbon3IT, says part of this work means keeping tabs on the amount of carbon that exists within the entire datacentre construction supply chain.

“It’s certainly true there’s uncertainty about values for everything in the supply chain, but if you’re talking about major components such as steel, the steel producers are able to provide values for embodied carbon in that steel,” he says.

Scope 1 emissions include fuels and – for this campus – includes the operation of its own solar-power generators. Scope 2, meanwhile, includes elements like purchased energy, steam, gases and in some cases cooling. For 2022, Scope 2 emissions at The Sines Project are reported as being zero.

Scope 3 covers essentially everything else, whether upstream and downstream. For some organisations, this may even include colocation or cloud services.

For steel that involves sometimes hydrocarbons that have been used on a manufacturing site, such as gas or electrical energy. So, calculating for this kind of embodied carbon can be “straightforward”, using the emissions factors for the grid to deliver certified carbon emissions for the final product, whether it’s virgin steel or recycled.

“[Figures] may be 70% to 80% higher depending on where you go. So, each entry points to the company that does the next step. The amount of carbon that’s associated with that previous piece is pretty well documented for those big items,” says Morris.

Why not mitigate materials use?

According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), embodied carbon in construction materials such as concrete, steel and insulation comprises roughly 11% of annual global emissions. The building industry as a whole accounts for about 40% of all emissions, the AIA says, so its stands to reason that by tackling Scope 3, every organisation can move faster towards climate and sustainability goals.

The Start Campus carefully selected Sines, near Portugal’s Alentejo coast, to ensure the location itself had “green” potential. The Sines Project will reuse seawater for cooling from the nearby liquid-natural gas (LNG) plant and ocean-water infrastructure from a decommissioned coal power station.

However, custom modelling helps ensure above-average transparency on emissions calculations and reductions estimates.

Carbon3IT has been constructing a decision-making tool that takes in inputs from procurement for materials and suppliers and up to help predict the carbon emissions impacts that will help the customer make better decisions.

“For materials like concrete, there’s something called an environmental product declaration, which is an ‘expression of life’, in lifecycle analysis that’s been certified by a third party for that particular material or components,” Morris adds. “You can look it up. There are different stages from cradle, where it comes out of the ground, to gate.”

By calculating embodied carbon for materials used, overall emissions can already be “super minimal”, he suggests, not least because Scope 1 and 2 can be small by comparison with Scope 3.

Start Campus chose from the start to build for energy efficiency in both construction and operations, running on photovoltaic solar supplemented by power purchase agreements (PPAs) with local wind and hydro power producers, with a projected lifetime for the facility of at least 20 years, he notes.

“That’s all going to be reiterated very soon in terms of legislation in the EU, and the EU taxonomy which is going to mandate what’s already been done locally in France: analysis at least of the possibility of using waste heat elsewhere in the ecosystem,” Morris adds.

The Sines Project is also part of an “industrial and residential community ecosystem” – which might sound rather fluffy – but is a key driver of “doing more with less” in ways that over time reduce the amount of extra heat energy trapped in the inner earth-atmosphere.

Calculating the number of gigawatt-hours (GWh) or giga-joules (GJ) of energy that has accumulated in the atmosphere is “not that difficult”, says Morris. “Start Campus’ legacy carbon is going to be zero very quickly.” 

Significant savings can be made

According to Morris, the power and related emissions will be equivalent to a normal datacentre of the same high efficiency operations in Portugal – but operating on only 12% of its capacity.

Additionally, because Start Campus hasn’t been emitting carbon for the past 20 years, it also does not have to make a claim which is “very difficult to support” about carbon emissions offsetting, he explains.

Fabiola Bordino, head of sustainability and marketing at Start Campus, says the biggest challenge is pushing change across the industry, especially with other suppliers. Sometimes the team asks for a service that a supplier does not understand and must educate them.

“We all need to starting thinking about a little bit more on sustainability, not just ticking the box, because that’s very easy,” Bordino says. “And the change needs to start with us.”

Bordino says that typically industries build their carbon models and have carbon accounting in operation yet only rarely roll that across to construction materials and the like. They move to account for carbon in their operations but do not factor in where they are currently when it comes to their carbon footprint, or that help to choose different types of materials.

“We still haven’t found a platform that enables you to track everything the way we wanted to, so [Carbon3IT] designs a carbon model that had all my crazy ideas on it,” she says.

“I don’t want a tool that just measures the carbon; I wanted that design and delivery we can actually work with, looking at all the materials, so we can change the materials because we have all the list of materials.”

By looking at steel and concrete, Start Campus already reduced the expected carbon emissions by 15% from the building. The on-site team tells her it is the first time they have tracked “everything they need” to plug into the carbon model, including the height of buildings, specific types of concrete or materials and so on, she says.

Start Campus predicts that The Sines Project will be powered 100% by renewable energy, with PUE of 1.15 targeting 1.11 over time. In Portugal, the grid mix is 80% renewables, she says, adding that in Iberia, you typically have sun, and when you do not, you have wind and still have hydro.

“Sustainability needs to be embedded within all departments. It should be in every time that we think of a design or do something, even with the landscape, for example,” she says. “We need to think of datacentres not just as real estate, but actually as an ecosystem.”

Bordino notes that traditional designs often include features like water-hungry lawns, problematic especially in drought-afflicted Portugal. Instead, they have looked at planting local trees where it’s known that they can absorb rather than emit carbon, as well as growing seaweed offshore to support biodiversity and offsetting.

Beyond the PPAs, Start Campus is also developing two-way communications between other local businesses and the communities around Sines with a view to developing solutions that are help “close the loop” and are mutually beneficial beyond their specific “silos”. Simply asking people what they need can have a “huge impact”.

“My datacentre will be much more efficient and greener if I get your waste water,” Bordino says. “And we’ll be working on projects for heating as well, because if you’re going to heat the water, there are others that can use that warmer water. By developing circular economies between ourselves, we can reduce costs and be greener.”

Overall, net water use will be only from the kitchen, toilets and cleaning, the company says.

Technologies include Schneider Electric automated monitoring and management software for the on-campus micro-grid and additional datacentre infrastructure, including EcoStruxure Galaxy VL UPS, medium voltage switchgear, switchboards and equipment, connected electrical distribution with thermal monitoring, and Planon asset, maintenance and service management software.

The first phase of The Sines Project is the 15MW Nest datacentre, whose first 5MW is set for commissioning in summer 2023. Another 10MW expected to be online by the end of this year.

The rest of the full 60 hectares or so of the campus once completed will comprise five modular buildings of up to 120MW each, depending on the client.

The site is served by the Sines-Fortaleza EllaLink subsea cable connecting Europe with South America after two decades of no direct data transfer route, with the Medusa subsea cable link up with North Africa expected in 2024-2025. New routes from the US are also coming into Portugal now, she says.

“It is becoming a new Atlantic hub, with one cable landing already and a bunch of cables landing in Lisbon, closing up a couple of loops. I would actually say we’re the door to Europe, because the subsea cables will close the loop with North Africa and South America,” says Bordino.

“Back in the day, if you were in Brazil and wanted any information from Europe, you would have to go from North America across the Atlantic, into Ireland or the UK, and then to wherever.”

Start Campus is backed by US hedge fund Davidson Kempner and UK-based sustainable-infrastructure investment firm Pioneer Point Partners.

Bordino would not name the first hyperscaler to take space, although she confirmed that a customer has signed to move into Nest this summer.

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