A strategy for Net Zero data centres

Throughout the last decade the world has seen a sharp rise in carbon emissions. Digital transformation is growing at an unprecedented rate, connectivity demands are rising, as are the strains on data centres and our world is quickly-becoming a digital domain. By Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric UK&I.

With business, economies and consumers growing ever dependent on digital services, and many new generations becoming accustomed to a digitized or connected way of life, it’s essential that the data centres of the future become more sustainable. In recent years, sustainability has fast risen to the top of the business agenda. The Harvard Business Review, for example, states that 99% of large company CEOs agree “sustainability issues are important to the future success of their businesses.” With Net Zero ambitions and sustainable commitments now a key factor in end-user decision-making, sustainability has also become a prevalent topic within the data centre sector. Indeed, industry players such as Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon have all made public commitments to Net Zero, and while already carbon neutral and powered by 100% renewable energy, Google, for example, aims to be the first major company to become carbon free by 2030.

Hyperscale sustainability has also created a ripple effect across the industry. Many of the world’s most high-profile and influential colocation operators have made sustainable practices a foundational component of their operating models. In Europe, companies such as Equinix, Interxion and Kao Data have signed the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, setting ambitious targets to become carbon neutral by 2050, while influencing policy and regulation at an international level. Signatories of the Pact are already working with the European Commission, and to-date have recommended a comprehensive set of 19 suggestions that span public procurement regulations, including both the procurement and development of renewable energies used by cloud and data centre providers.

Further, it has suggested the industry implement measurable energy efficiency targets, purchase only 100% carbon-free energy, prioritise water conservation, reuse and repair servers as part of a wider-circular strategy, and look for ways to recycle heat – something already in place by EcoDataCenter in the Nordics. In principle, these measures are logical, effective and will help make Net Zero ambitions a reality all the more quickly.

Sustainability drivers

For many years data centres have been seen as large consumers of power, with various analyses suggesting they represent 1-2% of global electricity consumption. Yet according to CBRE, data centre growth in the Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris (FLAP) markets will reach 400MW of new capacity during 2021, and with hyperscalers such as Microsoft and Google reporting annual growth increases of 44% and 34% consecutively, the pace of consumption may only accelerate. Interestingly, a report from Schneider Electric and 451 Research found that 97% of colocation customers are demanding contractual commitments to sustainability, and of the +800 global operators surveyed, 57% believe that efficiency and sustainability will be important competitive differentiators within three years. Furthermore, 55% of those also surveyed were taking some action, but it was neither strategic nor comprehensive, leaving a clear gap between customer expectations and providers’ commitments.

Over the last decade, technology and efficiency improvements have undoubtedly provided us with a crucial vehicle to reduce carbon emissions and energy losses, but those alone will not be enough to deliver the next leap in sustainable data centres, especially with data centre energy efficiency gains and average global PUE’s flattening out, according to the Uptime Institute. Now is the time to look further afield in our quest to build Net Zero data centres. Digital Realty, for example, believes that the “the majority of companies’ environmental impact starts within their supply chains, which produce more than 5x the emissions than their direct operations,” meaning

companies now need to look further afield than their own sustainability or efficiency initiatives and approach members of their supply chain.

What’s clear is that as we look to make Net Zero data centres a reality, operators need a holistic approach to challenge thinking outside of the confines of traditional design and deployment strategies. They must embrace opportunities to integrate with the grid and become ingrained with the circular economy. This, combined with resource-efficient facilities designed and built for ultra-efficiency, and powered by renewables, will prove essential. But how can operators achieve this?

Avoiding pitfalls in the quest for sustainable action

There are of course many reasons for data centre operators to embrace environmentally sustainable practices. Customers and investors are demanding it, regulations may require it, and it’s crucial for the future of our planet. Yet the fact is that there is no magic bullet for making Net Zero data centres a reality. Achieving such sustainability and energy efficiency goals requires a holistic and truly integrated approach, with a strategy that is defined and led by C-Level executives, and ingrained across all areas of a business.

What’s also needed is the ability to define a clear carbon value or price. Furthermore, as an industry, we need to address the absence of a measurable sustainability metric - something likened to PUE, but would include scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Furthermore, today’s businesses need to avoid the many pitfalls of sustainability strategies including a lack of corporate strategy, objectives and prioritised actions; misalignment of internal expertise and siloed resources; and lack of business case to justify and fund projects. I believe, therefore, that in order to meet sustainability demands, operators need a strategic framework to support their objectives. One that offers practical,actionable advice, can set and define measurable targets, and one that delivers Net Zero data centres.

A strategy for Net Zero facilities

To make Net Zero data centres a reality, operators first need to agree and define a bold, actionable and integrated strategy. This will empower design, procurement, facility operations and sustainability teams to work together collaboratively towards a common goal.

Secondly, they must utilise resource efficient and scalable data centre designs, using fewer raw materials, enabling easier serviceability, and offering an extended lifecycle through technology innovation. Thirdly, operational efficiency is essential. Here owners must utilise data to gain visibility of critical systems, track energy usage via data centre infrastructure management (DCIM) software, and benchmark their performance against said measurable targets.

Fourthly, renewable, or energy management strategies, encompassing renewable energy credits (RECs), building on site, or distributed power generation via microgrids, or securing offsite generation via power purchase agreements (PPAs), will be fundamental in helping operators reach the next stage of their sustainability objectives. And finally, it’s paramount that we begin to decarbonise the supply chain.

Today Scope 3 emissions are one of our industry's biggest challenge and we believe that technologies labelled as Green Premium, or those Vendors who embrace the circular economy and are transparent about the sustainability impact of their products, can take one step towards helping end-users understand their embodied carbon footprint.

What’s clear is that as an industry, no one company has all the answers, but the industry is making progress. And as we look to make Net Zero data centres a reality, an actionable, integrated and measurable approach will be crucial.

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