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Making our digital infrastructure environmentally sustainable

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

It’s long been recognised that the data centre industry is a driving force behind the digital economy; powering everything from Internet banking, ecommerce and gaming, to remote working and online communications.

However, it takes a lot of energy to make a data centre operate at its optimal performance which not only results in high electricity bills, but also leads to increased emissions that adversely affect the environment. Large data centres use more than 30 billion kilowatt hours of electrical power in a year - enough to power thousands of homes - and predictions show that by 2025, the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for no less than a fifth of global electricity.

In response to these alarming statistics, the EU Commission set a “green deadline”, noting that the industry "should become climate neutral by 2030.” The pressure is clearly on for data centre providers to reduce their carbon footprint, quickly.

Fortunately, many data centre operators are already realising that their energy consumption cannot continue to rise indefinitely and are committed to making their facilities more environmentally friendly.

Given the increasing demand for data centre facilities due to business and consumer demand, how are they achieving their sustainability ambitions whilst maintaining a high-quality service?

Taking greener steps with more efficient heating and cooling

Cooling is a notoriously energy hungry element of making data centres work. As much as 40 per cent of power delivered to a facility is likely to be used for cooling and other ancillary functions rather than being delivered to the IT equipment within it. This energy is not being wasted because it is used to maintain conditions of temperature and humidity within which the IT hardware can be guaranteed to operate reliably. However, it is not productive energy, and data centre operators strive to minimise it.

Many providers are already taking steps to reduce the environmental cost of heating and cooling, from investing in better vents and safety plates, to blanking panels and floor tiles. Blanking panels insulate cables and reduce heat loss, and safety plates separate components and prevent heat build-up. In addition, some providers are developing and implementing innovative cooling techniques, to reduce power usage.

There are plenty of examples of real innovation which providers can draw on for guidance. For example, Google's Hamina data centre in Finland makes use of seawater to keep premises cool, and Facebook has adopted a cooling system at its Lulea data centre in Sweden that uses the chilly outside air to ensure its equipment is kept at the optimum temperature.

VIRTUS Data Centres is continually looking at how to optimise cooling technology. To keep its facilities as efficient as possible, the company uses a variety of innovative design elements for greater efficiency whilst actually lowering costs; this includes air flooded data halls, utilising hot aisle containment, and cooling using a variety of industry leading technologies.

At VIRTUS’ LONDON2 data centre, a borehole was dug at the inception of the site so it can use natural water sources for cooling to reduce demand on the mains water supply. Combined with the local climate i.e. if the temperature is below a certain level, the air in the data centre can be chilled without any mechanical cooling, and efficient cooling technology this delivers low Water Usage Efficiency (WUE) for the site.

Harnessing renewable energy

Data centres have a range of components which make up their energy footprint, but electricity is the primary energy input in daily operations. All the equipment – servers, storage, networking – is powered by electricity, which means the environmental impact of a data centre is largely dependent on where that electricity comes from.

The ICT sector is already world-leading in its adoption of energy from renewable resources, and the data centre industry is at the front of the pack. Indeed, according to Greenpeace, in the UK 76.5 per cent of the electricity purchased by commercial data centre operators is 100 per cent certified renewable, and a further 10 per cent is purchased according to customer requirement, which increasingly means renewable, taking that total up further.

In the UK, VIRTUS Data Centres is seeing the benefits of renewable energy use. All of the energy consumed at its facilities is from 100 per cent renewable sources thanks to partnerships with companies like Bryt Energy who generates power from wind, solar and tidal sources. By doing this, VITRUS saves around 45,000,000 tonnes of CO2 every year, which is enough to fill Wembley Stadium five times over. What's more, it’s this commitment which is crucial in helping the company work towards its own goal of decarbonisation by 2025.

For data centre providers in the UK looking to capitalise on renewable energy usage, Ofgem’s Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin (REGO) scheme has been an important development. A REGO certificate is meant to prove the renewable source of the energy provided, offering reassurance to purchasers. However, it should be noted that, according to Good Energy, it is possible for suppliers to trade and purchase REGOs without purchasing the renewably-sourced electricity - and, by stocking up on REGOs, companies can claim to offer 100 per cent renewable energy tariffs without holding contracts with renewable producers.

A holistic approach

Being environmentally friendly is not a binary achievement - there are “shades” of green, and some providers are doing better than others. To be truly sustainable, environmental ambitions must be built into every aspect of data centre construction and maintenance.

From ensuring buildings meet BREEAM standards during construction, to choosing energy star-rated appliances and equipment, there is plenty that data centre providers can do to minimise their environmental impact. They can lead with energy efficient and effective design from inception, adopting the latest in building technologies and sustainable sourcing of materials for these buildings - ensuring a smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water.

The most environmentally conscious companies also look at adjunct areas to their core business, such as how staff get to work and transport links optimising the use of public transport and installing charging points for electric vehicles.

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Some data centres are already working hard to mitigate the environmental effects of a technology hungry society, but there is clearly still work to be done. The industry needs to take action and continue its search for new ways to minimise carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.

Those providers who are committed to a greener future are marrying performance with sustainability - ensuring that they are embracing moves like zero carbon energy sources, whilst maintaining security of supply, service uptime and customer satisfaction.

David Watkins, Solutions Director, VIRTUS Data Centres