Power usage within the information industry is increasing as our demand for internet and smart technologies is propelling to new heights. Therefore, we must reduce electricity use in data centers and implement more energy efficient solutions to cut CO₂-emissions. The question remains, however, as to how we go about this in the smartest way. Here are four key actions that will help data centers become more sustainable in a future of increasing data usage.
Revenue in the data center industry is projected to reach US$342.10bn in 2023 and US$410.40bn by 2027 (Statista.com).
The high annual growth rate is a direct reflection of today’s digitalized society. Data centers become increasingly important for private as well as public bodies worldwide due to progressive digitization of business processes, cloud usage, and big data. At the same time generative AI applications (artificial intelligence), that allow computers using machine learning algorithms to generate content, have emerged as game changers. For the data center sector, this means that they need to find a different cloud-computing framework for its digital infrastructure and reconfigure their server farms to optimize them for the data-processing requirements of AI.
While revenue and data usage grow, so does the industry’s CO₂-footprint. It is estimated that data centers generate the same amount of carbon emissions as the global airline industry in terms of fuel use (NowVertical), accounts for around 4% of global electricity consumption (Wavestone), and 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions (lebigdata.fr). While these numbers may seem minor, they are immensely significant considering the comparable footprint of other major industries like the transportation and building sectors.
With a forecasted market growth, there is an urgent need to rethink how and where we build data centers to meet future data needs and at the same time lower their weighty climate footprint. The key is to focus simultaneously on greening energy sources and reducing as well as reusing energy.
So how do we make data centers more sustainable?
When building a sustainable data center, the first decision literally needs to start with the ground. Remember that every aspect of the data center is affected by site selection: power source, water supply, geotechnical conditions, job availability, local planning and regulations, and the potential for brownfield usage. Many of these factors are prerequisites for achieving the required LCA target (life cycle assessment) as stated in many countries’ building regulations. An optimum location will also enable maximum efficiency once the data center is up and running.
Step two in making data centers more sustainable, is to look at how the actual building is designed. One of the biggest causes of carbon emissions from data centers is the construction of the facilities themselves. The data center facilities are typically built with traditional building techniques and construction materials like concrete, steel, and thermal insulation. Adopting alternative, less CO₂-heavy materials and streamlining their physical arrangement, companies can significantly reduce the embodied carbon footprint of their data centers. And by opting for high-quality, durable building materials, landfill can also be minimized while the energy and sourcing of new materials used for maintenance will be lowered.
Already in the design phase, you need to think about how to optimize building operation to increase efficiency and decrease energy ‘waste’ going to non-IT equipment purposes. Luckily, efficiency is not only better for the environment but also better for business.
Most of the energy demand in data centers originates from powering the servers. They in turn produce heat and need to be cooled. The HVAC systems cooling the serves also require energy and generate excess heat. Heat from both the cooling systems and the servers is currently being let out into the surrounding environment.
Reusing heat, recirculating water, and sourcing of renewable energy like wind and solar power are some of the means that need to be fundamental to the building design and which will drastically improve building operation efficacy.
The days of building and operating data centers in a vacuum are over. If data centers are to reach carbon neutrality, they need to be seen as an integral part of society. As already stated, data centers produce excessive heat when cooling their server racks and use large amounts of energy in doing so. Through improved energy planning and better integration of different sectors to the energy system we will be able to leverage synergies. These could be using the data center’s surplus heat by district heating grids in neighbouring communities instead of investing in additional heat supply.
Sector integration can generally happen through either urban planning (ensuring proximity to other buildings that can offtake the surplus heat) or through large district energy networks.