Data centers on the road to sustainability

information data server
Sheila Zabeu -

February 15, 2023

Data Center Knowledge‘s recent report outlines the path datacenters have taken towards sustainability, the impacts of new legislation and technologies that can help implement greener practices.

The study begins by pointing out that datacenters currently account for about 1% of the planet’s energy consumption and are also a major consumer of water for use in cooling, not to mention the electronic waste generated. The negative effects of these facilities on sustainability are increasingly worrying residents near the facilities, NGOs and regulatory bodies. Therefore, remedial and preventive measures need to be taken now and in the future

On the other hand, the study also highlights that by taking these steps to make data centres more sustainable, an added bonus for business can be gained: money saved. In short, there is a lot to do, but there is also a lot to profit from.

Before, during, after

Unfortunately, there are still few universally recognized standards for measuring the sustainability of data centres. A little progress has been made in recent years in this field.

For Andrew Fanara, a sustainability consultant who spent much of his career at the US Environmental Protection Agency and led the development of Energy Star programmes and hundreds of product specifications for energy and water use, the US government was unlikely to take the initiative to regulate data centre efficiency, so the answer came from the industry itself.

The Energy Star score for datacenters was introduced in 2018, in coordination with associations such as Uptime Institute, Green Grid, 7 x 24 Exchange and AFCOM, and was based on the PUE metric already well understood by the industry. More recently, during the Data Center World 2022 conference, a new certification for assessing datacenter sustainability was officially announced. The Data Center Efficiency Evolution Program (DEEP) goes beyond energy consumption, addressing other aspects such as water use and e-waste recycling, and using 70 parameters to assess datacenters on issues such as airflow management, electrical systems, mechanical systems and processes.

Tax incentives for sustainability measures

Thinking more sustainably does not mean stopping making profits. Fanara describes themselves as pragmatists and says businesses can benefit by consuming less energy and water. “I don’t believe that environmental protection and growth of the economy are mutually exclusive. I think they can work in harmony. I am very interested in market-based programmes that have an incredibly powerful ability to do a lot to promote environmental protection,” comments Fanara.

For example, various components of the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States can help improve the sustainability levels of data centres and also save money directly and indirectly through tax credits.

Datacenter operators in the United States who reduce, and capture, carbon emissions will be able to receive cash tax credits to invest in the necessary equipment. Another benefit of the IRA is tax incentives for renewable energy projects, which can result in lower energy costs, and also for battery projects. Another path that may be beneficial is to implement projects with in-house renewable energy facilities, such as solar or wind, to power datacenters.

Hydrogen as a contributor to sustainability

The Data Center Knowledge report puts hydrogen on the path to datacenter sustainability. However, even though it is the most common element in the universe, is highly combustible and appears to be the ideal green energy source, hydrogen has its challenges when it comes to using it to meet energy demands in general, including data centres.

The combination of hydrogen and fuel cell technology appears to be the ideal model for generating green electricity with minimal greenhouse gas production, the study explains. In addition, other advances in this field are bringing hydrogen closer to datacenters as a much cleaner energy source to not only power backup systems but also potentially replace fossil fuels to power data centres as a whole in the future.

Modular solutions

Modular datacenters are a growth sector. This global market was valued at $21.3 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $52.4 billion by 2027, according to Research and Markets. These solutions range from small datacenters with just a few racks in a container to multi-story buildings with liquid-cooled racks.

According to an Omdia survey conducted in Q1 2022, investments in modular datacenters are expected to grow, as 99% of respondents said modular solution will be part of their future strategies and almost half expect to have up to a quarter of IT loads physically hosted in modular or containerized datacenters by 2023.

Modular datacenters are no longer a niche approach, only applicable in limited situations, and have become more common among datacenters builders. There is a huge demand to expand datacenter capacity at an unprecedented pace, which drives the trend to invest in modular power and cooling solutions.

The survey also revealed that modular datacenters make expansion and retrofits easier. A share of 43% of respondents said they are best suited for expansion of existing facilities, and 39% said they are suitable for upgrades or retrofits.

In terms of sustainability, modular datacenters also make their contribution firstly by not requiring the construction of buildings and thus reducing emissions. In addition, they allow one to tap into more efficient energy sources. “By building a data centre in a prefabricated space, better management of hot/cold air corridors can be employed to increase the efficiency of HVAC systems, lowering operating costs,” explains Ed Spears, technical marketing manager at Eaton.

In addition, modular datacenters can help the transition to other alternative energy sources. For example, some local authorities often impose certain requirements on how lithium batteries are installed, protected or monitored. Then, modular datacenters allow you to package them in a specific enclosure rather than having to retrofit or provide a larger facility to meet those requirements.

Finally, to have truly sustainable data centres, it is necessary to have precise metrics that help to assess the environmental footprint of these environments, which is multifactorial, and the methods and technologies used to reduce it. This ongoing process should start today and not have a day to finish.