How data centres are taking on the green challenge

Data centres are on the right path to reduce their impact on the environment

July 14, 2021

Data centres are increasingly implementing new measures to cut energy use and turn to green power – but more still needs to be done to chase down sustainability goals.

Amid rapidly rising demand for digital platforms and services in recent years, the data centres sector has been in growth mode. However, with local and national governments around the world setting ambitious net zero carbon goals, the push to make data centres greener is gathering pace.

Operators, investors and users are all aware of the need for action as companies look to ensure the sustainability credentials of their supply chains, says Colm Shorten, senior director for data centres at JLL.

“Like in other real estate sectors, a huge effort is needed from across the data centre industry to further improve energy efficiency,” he says. “We’re starting to see sustainability become more of a focus area both in terms of construction and operations but there’s still a long way to go.”

A recent survey of 825 multi-tenant data centre operators by S&P found that 43 percent said have sustainability initiatives in place. Data centre service providers, such as Yondr, are targeting a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions from data center construction by 2025 and 100 percent renewable energy. The firm has put sustainability at the heart of its recently-announced $2 billion expansion in the U.S.

In recent years, power purchase agreements have gone some way to reducing carbon footprints. All of data centre firm CyrusOne’s facilities are now running on 100 per cent renewable energy tariffs and European cloud providers have pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030.

Others are installing solar panels while the likes of Singapore’s Keppel and Norway’s Green Mountain are turning to hydrogen power developments for clean energy.

Changing investor expectations

The types of investors coming into the sector – many for the first time – are equally pushing the needle on sustainability.

“Institutional investors attracted by the stable income the sector offers have their own green ambitions,” Shorten says. “Investing in assets that don’t meet those expectations is a no-go, particularly when placing capital for the long-term.

“The rate of growth the sector is experiencing means getting it right now could prove prudent further down the line.”

Some 438 megawatts of new supply will be added to Europe’s main markets of Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam Paris and Dublin alone this year, increasing the five cities’ total market size by some 21 percent. And this new supply will under close scrutiny.

“Both existing and potential future investors will need to see progress on both electricity used and water consumed for cooling,” says Shorten. “Successful and more accurate tracking of energy consumption is needed, as well as new innovative solutions.”

Singapore tech players Keppel Data Centres, Ascenix, CoolestDC, New Media Express and Red Dot Analytics recently joined forces with the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore to build data centre solutions for tropical climates. The S$23 million research program is aimed at reducing the amount of energy required to cool servers.

A Microsoft experiment to assess the feasibility of underwater data centres proved successful last year, with seawater acting as a coolant rather than traditional air conditioning units used on land. China has since launched its own underwater data centre.


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New specifications

One big issue facing the sector is the number of legacy data centres built more than 10 years ago which continue to consume large amounts of energy.

These will need decarbonising in the coming years, requiring both investment and innovation to drive energy efficiency while remaining in operation. The key challenge is centered around the combined energy consumption and energy efficiency, says Shorten.

“The issue is that they were designed and built in a time when sustainability was much further down the priority list, when availability and uptime were the main drivers of design,” he says.

For new-builds, the focus has shifted more recently to sustainable design, development and materials including water conservation and a circular economy approach. 

“New-build data centres, of course, offer higher specifications across the board,” Shorten says. “Energy cutting efforts can be more significantly made in newly-delivered schemes.”

But building new is becoming a challenge; Ireland is currently looking to ban new-builds. Meanwhile, Singapore, Frankfurt and Amsterdam have all used moratoriums to limit and stop new data centre development.

“Stricter and more stringent measures are coming - and sustainability will be a bigger part of planning officials’ thinking when granting permission for new developments,” says Shorten. “Along with higher expectations from investors, that will only serve to further drive change across the industry as it looks to clean up its act.”

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