Why data centres are the new frontier in the fight against climate change

As we continue to generate more data than ever before, how can we stop the data centres that house this information from destroying the planet?

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As a growing number of organisations seek to become major players in today’s data-driven economy, the data centre remains one of the most important pieces of business infrastructure. However, as the ice caps continue to melt at an alarming rate, is it really possible to sustain energy-guzzling data centres whilst trying to save the planet?

On the 1 May 2019, the UK government approved a motion to declare a climate emergency. In the preceding weeks, children had been taking part in ‘school strike for climate’ marches, while Extinction Rebellion dominated headlines with high-profile protests to raise awareness around the consequences of climate inaction. July of 2019 was the warmest month ever observed worldwide and satellite images were released showing large parts of the Arctic, Greenland, Siberia and Alaska suffering from wildfires.  

While most climate change activists are focused on limiting emissions from the automotive, aviation and energy sectors, it’s the communications industry that is on track to generate more carbon emissions than all of the aforementioned sectors.

In 2016, it was reported that the world’s data centres used more than Britain’s total electricity consumption - 416.2 terawatt hours, significantly higher than the UK’s 300 terawatt hours. At three percent of the global electricity supply and accounting for about two percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, data centres have the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry.

Recent predictions state that the energy consumption of data centres is set to account for 3.2 percent of the total worldwide carbon emissions by 2025 and they could consume no less than a fifth of global electricity. By 2040, storing digital data is set to create 14 percent of the world’s emissions, around the same proportion as the US does today.

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Current statistics show that only half of the world’s population is connected to the internet and therefore contributing to this data deluge. Despite this, IDC noted that the number of data centres worldwide has grown from 500,000 in 2012 to more than 8 million today. The amount of energy used by data centres continues to double every four years, meaning they have the fastest-growing carbon footprint of any area within the IT sector.

“This reliance on data centres is only going to grow as internet penetration rates improve across the world in locations where internet freedom is only just becoming widespread.” says Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.com.

“As a result, the need for server farms is only going to increase as time passes and more people join the internet. This, in addition to the fact that the amount of data that each person creates is expanding exponentially, means that the pressure for data centres is actually going to grow.”

The launch of 5G, the new wave of IoT devices, and a thriving cryptocurrency scene will only compound the problem. As more devices become connected more data will need to be processed than ever before.

Why are data centres so environmentally unfriendly?

For a data centre to remain functional, it either needs to have been built in a country with a naturally cold climate or to be housed in a temperature-controlled environment that must be maintained round the clock. According to studies, around 40 percent of the total energy that data centres consume goes to cooling IT equipment.

Migrating 8 million data centres to Siberia is an unrealistic goal, but industry experts believe building data centres in cold countries could help cut emissions. Google tested this theory by opening a data centre in Hamina, Finland in 2009, and in May this year, announced it would invest a further €600 million in this eco-friendlier endeavour.

Read next: Iceland's bitcoin mining data centres are maturing into phase two

Since 2014, Google’s data centres have been using 50 percent less energy than the industry average through the use of highly efficient evaporative cooling solutions, smart temperature and lighting controls and custom built servers which use as little energy as possible.

However, with countries increasingly passing laws that require citizen data to be stored on servers located domestically, picking colder climates beyond these borders is no longer a viable option.

According to Walsh, the environmental impact caused by data centres doesn’t stop at electrical consumption.

“Coolants are often made of hazardous chemicals, and battery backups at data centres - needed for when there are power shortages - cause an environmental impact both due to mining for battery components and the disposal of the toxic batteries afterward,” Walsh says.

“Server centres often also burn diesel fuel to keep up with power demands, and that fuel must be burned periodically when its shelf life expires.”

Vincent de Rul, director of energy solutions at EDF Energy agrees, but adds that it’s not just a sustainability challenge that data centres present the IT sector with, it’s also a strategic one.

“Energy costs can make up as much as 70 to 80 percent of operational expenses for a data centre, and simply put, power supply is a business-critical issue for data centres,” says de Rul. “One provider was recently fined over one million pounds for an outage of only 12 minutes, caused by an issue in their local power distribution grid.”

How can we make data centres more sustainable long-term?

A recent IDC study claims that by 2025, worldwide data traffic will have grown by 61 percent to 175 zettabytes, with roughly 75 percent of the population having at least one data interaction every 18 seconds. As global internet penetration rates continue to grow and connected technologies enter the mainstream, it’s clear that the number of data centres worldwide is going to keep on increasing.

If we can’t live without data centres, the IT sector needs to look for alternative models to redress their monstrous carbon footprints - a larger share in total than every country besides the USA, China and India.

The impending climate crisis, however, is by no means a new topic for discussion - and the same can be said for the sustainability of data centres.

“The European Code of Conduct for Data Centre Energy Efficiency programme – a voluntary initiative created in response to increasing energy consumption in the sector – dates back to 2008,” de Rul notes. “Yet there is definitely a renewed focus on the topic, as the ever-increasing demand for data has created a parallel demand for energy.”

Technology heavyweights such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook have committed to 100 percent renewable energy use in the coming years. However, Greenpeace recently accused Amazon of abandoning that target in order to win business from the oil and gas industry.

Ian Whitfield, CEO of RED Engineering, believes that the ongoing trend for hyperscale data centre construction should be seen as an opportunity for the industry: “Organisations [need to] lead with an energy-efficient design from the onset, adopt the latest in building technology and influence the overall supply chain for the actual sourcing of materials for these buildings.

“By establishing proactive sustainability and efficiency measures at inception, leveraging the latest technology these companies can ensure that the facility can be operated, maintained, repaired and refurbished easily, moving into a more circular use of materials and smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water.”

Besides removing the need to build temperature-controlled environments to house data centres, companies have started to explore using renewable energy such as wind, hydro or solar to power data centres and optimising or upgrading technology to improve its efficiency and operating temperature.

Artificial intelligence is also being deployed in some data centres to reduce power consumption. AI can analyse data output, humidity, temperature, and other important statistics in order to find a way to improve efficiency, drive down costs, and reduce total power consumption.

Other data centres have taken a different approach when trying to reduce the amount of energy they waste. Nordic data centre operator DigiPlex has made a pledge that will see the waste heat from its facility in Ulven, Oslo, reused to warm 5,000 apartments in the city. The company has signed an agreement with a local district heating supplier Fortum Oslo to redistribute the heat generated by its data centre, which is also renewably powered.

However, if more ‘big tech’ companies continue to pledge their commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy use, Whitfield believes this could increase demand on renewable energy and intensify the pressure on energy suppliers to keep increasing the amount of renewable energy available.

Reducing the carbon footprint of data centres will go some way to mitigating the urgent climate disaster facing the planet but we can’t just rely on lip service by the likes of Amazon as a solution. Government regulation alongside strengthened industry-wide standards and commitments to so-called Green IT and increased public pressure is desperately needed if there’s to be any long-term, meaningful change. While there is some movement, the pace is frustratingly glacial, and it’s clear there’s still a long way to go.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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