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Datacentre industry must stop doing itself down on sustainability, says EUDCA board member

In a panel debate at the Datacloud Europe Congress in Monaco, the datacentre industry was urged to start celebrating and stop chastising itself over its sustainability practices

The datacentre industry must stop criticising itself over its energy use and start talking up how its activities contribute to improving the sustainability of society as a whole, it has been claimed.

During a panel debate at the Datacloud Europe Congress in Monaco, European Data Centre Association (EUDCA) board member and managing director of Equinix Services Michael Winterson said datacentres make a markedly bigger contribution to improving the environmentally friendliness of society than people realise.

The problem is, the datacentre industry’s energy consumption habits tend to be viewed in isolation, rather than in the context of the role their facilities play in powering the digital economy, and this needs to change, he said.

“The digital economy we all want – which is fundamentally more environmentally friendly than the physical economy we are replacing – needs datacentres, so we need to proactively engage society,” said Winterson.

“We have to start saying [to the public]: look at how the digitisation of Europe creates jobs, saves energy, uses less resources and creates sustainability. That’s our failing.”

Expanding on this point, Winterson described how the growing use of virtual and digital currencies can benefit society, despite the focus on the huge amounts of energy that cryptocurrency mining consumes. 

He said the physical forms of currency these methods of payment are replacing are equally, if not more, resource-intensive to produce, but that is not talked about in the same way as digital currencies are. 

“The concept of digital currency fundamentally replaces huge physical infrastructure, and we need to look at the net impact, not the gross impact of the growing datacentre market,” he said.

In line with this, Winterson said the datacentre industry should stop wasting time criticising itself and start celebrating the great strides it has made towards improving its energy efficiency in the past two decades.

“Our industry over the past 18 years has delivered an 80% reduction in energy consumed to deliver [our services] and we should be slapping ourselves on the back, and should be feted by governments across the world for the amazing amount of savings we have generated,” he said.

Picking up on this point during the session, Gisle M Eckhoff, CEO of Nordic-based sustainable datacentre design firm Digiplex, said that although the industry has made great progress, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels on sustainability.

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“Basically today, we see that 2% of all CO2 emissions globally are coming from the datacentre industry, and that is more than the airlines, and when we see 3% of electricity is consumed by datacentres, sustainability is a major issue,” said Eckhoff. “So even if good things are going on, this is a big issue.”

For this reason, there are enduring calls for the datacentre industry’s energy use to be regulated more heavily, which Winterson said would be a mistake.

“We absolutely cannot allow ourselves to have our energy consumption, procurement and utilisation regulated,” he said. “The power savings you can create by having a vibrant datacentre market are just phenomenal. Do not regulate this business – you will screw it up.”

In the meantime, there are many other areas the industry can address to help clean up its act even more, said fellow panellist Patrik Öhlund, CEO of Sweden-based datacentre investment hub Node Pole.

These are both upstream, in terms of where it sources its energy, and downstream, by making better use of the waste products created by datacentres, namely heat, said Öhlund.

He also said there is a case to be made for datacentre operators making more effort to integrate with the communities where their server farms are built.

“If you want to be part of the community, you need to not just be in the datacentre, you also need to look into how you can develop the community around that,” said Öhlund.

This could prove particularly valuable for operators that are struggling to fill roles and recruit staff with the right competencies, if the industry were to make more effort to forge ties with universities, for example, he added.

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