There is an average of three devices for every human on the planet, and the number’s growing exponentially. Most of these devices rely on cloud communications, built upon platforms that comprise sophisticated software and hardware systems networked across regions.

Technology companies utilise data centres to provide the backbone for all the internet and cloud services we rely upon today. These centres house all kinds of businesses ranging from video streaming to email, and from e-commerce to social media.

The cloud is becoming more important than ever in the way our world functions and sustainability is a prime focus as the threat of climate change and the actions that need to be taken are acknowledged by the corporates that rely on the cloud and those that provide it.

Key Players in a Changing Energy System

Concentrations of large data centres pose challenges for national grid operators in delivering power capacity, at the same time as they are implementing changes in the system to accommodate renewable energy from wind and solar. The energy system is evolving away from a system of large generators to a distributed network of engaged participants tied together by smart technologies and policy incentives.

Data centres are highly engineered nodes in the power system. They use sophisticated systems to ensure stability and resilience. These systems have the capability to support the changes required to make the power systems more sustainable. In a changing energy system, data centres will be one of the key players.

Those providing the tools to enable this change must have sustainability at the forefront of their strategies. They must balance the growing demand for their services – data management, processing and storage – with the transition to a more sustainable world.

Growth of IT Presence Using Less Power

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data centre energy demand remained steady between 2014 and 2020, which is explained by a move away from server rooms into Cloud tech and hyper-scale data centres enabling the growth of IT presence using less power. There is an economy of scale in large data centres. The IT systems delivering the main function of data centres perform more operations per unit of energy than previous generations.

 
There is also a trend towards higher rack densities, with the key barriers being power delivery and heat removal. In these circumstances, direct liquid cooling technologies become viable. Almost all of the power feeding a data centre now reaches the IT equipment to deliver the service and is not lost to cooling and other inefficiencies.

The IT systems delivering the main function of data centres perform more operations per unit of energy than previous generations. There is also a trend towards higher rack densities, with the key barriers being power delivery and heat removal. In these circumstances, direct liquid cooling technologies become viable. Almost all of the power feeding a data centre now reaches the IT equipment to deliver the service and is not lost to cooling and other inefficiencies.

The improvements in the efficiency of data centres include virtualisation (software optimisation and load-sharing), air separation (hot and cold aisles), better batteries and UPS systems, and free-air cooling. This journey will continue, but data centres now have an opportunity to become carbon negative.

Renewable Energy Supply

One way to achieve sustainability is to generate or procure renewable energy. Currently, generating sufficient renewable energy on-site is a little impractical, though about 5% of a data centre’s annual electricity demand could be delivered through roof-mounted solar PV panels.

Most grids now include a percentage of renewable generation. Ireland, for example, has the highest penetration of onshore wind generation in Europe, with over 32% of grid electricity generated from wind energy in 2019. Other renewable sources bring the total renewable supply to almost 40%, hitting the government’s 2020 target. The new target is 70% by 2030, and renewable supports will facilitate the deployment of more wind and solar assets.

A credible option for data centres to achieve 100% renewable energy involves entering into direct power purchase agreements with wind or solar farms. Tech companies have globally signed some of the biggest renewable energy deals in recent years. Ensuring such PPAs are from unsubsidised projects brings additional benefit to the system.

The question of local renewables may become a factor – is the power actually physically able to reach the data centre? Going beyond this for the absolute gold standard would account hourly for renewable power delivery – i.e. matching the site load to availability of renewable power locally.

Data centre power infrastructure can be leveraged to help the electricity grid to absorb more renewable power. Simply allowing a UPS system to operate bi-directionally can help grids to achieve the levels of reliability that would otherwise become more difficult to achieve with increasing renewables.

Alternative Energy Solutions

Moving data centres closer to the site of renewable generation implies a move away from built-up, populated areas and thus a greater probability of data centre campuses, home to enterprises supporting and serving the data centre infrastructure itself.

Biogas generation plants can power backup generators, and large-scale green hydrogen generation is facilitated by the proximity to sources of green energy. Hydrogen fuel cells can take the place of diesel backup engines and, operating in tandem with the grid, can build more flexible operations. Making these changes will require a stronger effort in terms of commitment by data centre operators, their customers, grid operators, and policymakers.

Corporate Sustainability Commitments

In Europe and the United States, the data industry is made up of a small number of key players. This should make tracking their sustainability commitments simpler. In the past 12 months, we have seen some of these corporates announce big sustainability commitments. 

There is a growing sense that these companies are taking the environmental element of sustainability seriously and they understand the benefits that can be gained from sustainable business practices. They include Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Some of their strategies extend beyond energy and operations into the supply chain and product lifecycles. Some are helping to develop solutions for a changing planet. These companies are influential, and their decisions can trigger global impacts, both positive and negative. This space will be interesting to watch over the coming years.


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