Greening the data centres - how far will environmental regulation go?

In the sobering wake of the Stern report, the rallying cry came from the very top. The Prime Minister himself went public with his fears, labelling the findings both ‘overwhelming’ and ‘disastrous.’

The seven hundred page document spells out the consequences of carbon emissions upon the ailing environment: floods from rising sea levels are set to potentially displace up to 100 million people as 1 in 6 people will become a climate refugee. Wildlife will be severely affected as up to 40% of species are facing extinction.

Oh, and the global economy could shrink by at least 20%!

The more cynical amongst us may speculate that the latter point has proved to be the catalyst for the recent legislative onslaught in the name of Mother Nature.

But it’s here to stay: environmental regulation is a reality and it will certainly increase over the next 20 years.

Sir Nicholas Stern didn’t pull his punches as he pointed the finger of blame firmly at the industry and power sectors, who, according to his report, are responsible for 38% of the carbon suffocating the planet.

With a power requirement of anything up to fifty times that of equivalent office work space, data centre operators and owners should be well aware that this wave of regulation and legislation is likely to have a disproportionate impact upon them.

With this in mind, how do we manage this regulation and work with it, rather than find ourselves standing against it?

It seems unlikely that data centres are going to become pariahs for the regulators – like the next ‘tobacco’.

There is widespread understanding that a reduction in carbon emissions needs to be achieved without inflicting a terminal sucker-punch to the economy, and in an age where the economy is driven by global internet computing, data centres are indispensable.

Fact. If anything, it can be argued that the move to lower emissions is very much in line with data centre owners’ interests: considering the current cost of electricity, anything to reduce power consumption would be welcomed.

Simply stated, the primary challenge for the data centre industry is to keep ahead of the ‘regulatory curve’ by making significant and steady improvements thus avoiding a legal headlock.

The price of failure is huge. Imagine a world where the industry is saddled with impractical, cumbersome regulations that are unresponsive and contrary to business needs.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Aligning business processes by which we manage data centres to the ideology of a low carbon economy is not as daunting as it sounds.

According to Defra, the government’s environment department, the principles of a low carbon economy should focus upon the extraction of energy from low-carbon and renewable resources, such as wind, wave and tidal power.

Furthermore, there should be an emphasis upon the use of energy efficient products and a proactive policy on recycling should be wholeheartedly embraced.

In the data centre industry we already have the ability to start sourcing and increasing the use of energy from ‘green’ suppliers.

Wind, wave or solar power does not need to be generated onsite - it can be fed into the grid from anywhere.

A company policy to seek out renewables from energy supplies is an achievable first step in reducing the carbon impact of the data centre.

Similarly, the introduction of purchasing strategies that favour easily recyclable products, packaging and redundant kit is easy to introduce and will immediately decrease the overall environmental impact of data centres.

Furthermore, policies to manage lighting – using low energy bulbs, zoning, switching off when not in use, etc. – can have a rapid and dramatic effect on energy usage and in turn, emissions.

As a business facility, the data centre needs to incorporate these principles through the rigorous enforcement of processes that demonstrate a road-map towards decreasing emissions.

As high-energy users, data centre operators should assess their current situation in order to measure the improvements and progress achieved by taking such actions.

Environmental regulation will go as far as it needs to in order to safeguard our environment – and economy.

Meanwhile, the data centre industry has to adopt procedures to its everyday operations that support the principles of a low carbon economy whilst being able to fulfil the requirements of its businesses goals.