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Volta Data Centres Blog

The rise of the green data centre: why and how these essential facilities are becoming sustainable

Posted by Katharine McNamara on 26-Feb-2020 16:47:45

In recent years, as global consensus has shifted towards a greater need to reduce carbon emissions and do more generally to protect the environment, certain industries have found themselves under the glow of a harsh spotlight. The automotive industry being an example.

Spurred on by the weight of public expectation and demand, car companies ramped up the production of EVs and hybrids and began developing their more conventional engines to produce much lower carbon outputs. Their efforts were deemed sufficient enough in the interim for the spotlight to have now widened to illuminate other sectors whose activity, though perhaps less obvious, has been contributing to a climate problem some are now describing as a crisis. Amongst them, is the data centre sector.

A hungry beast

Ask random members of the public which businesses they believe to be most responsible for adding to the environmental predicament and the likelihood is that few will identify data centres. It’s understandable. These silent facilities often sit at the edge of conurbations with many oblivious to what is going on inside. Yet, on a global scale, data centre power consumption amounts to roughly 416 terawatts, or, in more digestible terms, a scary 3% of all electricity generated on the planet. And it’s a figure that’s growing. 

Requiring such massive reserves of power to operate, more and more data centres are recognising the need to make significant changes before growing observation of their energy consumption becomes a forensic scrutiny. This recognition is giving rise to the development of new, ‘green’ data centres and this is how it’s happening…

The switch to renewables

They often come under fire for all sorts of reasons, but the big tech companies are leading the way when it comes to powering their data centres with renewable energy.

2017 marked Silicon Valley giant Google’s first year that they bought enough renewable energy to match the energy consumption of every data centre and office it occupies around the world. Though it doesn’t mean that all their data centres are powered by 100% renewable sources, they’re making serious inroads. Meanwhile, Microsoft announced at the end of 2018 that half the power used by its data centres came from renewable energy with a target of increasing this to 70% by 2023.

Though it’s harder for companies the size of Google and Microsoft to make quick, wholesale switches to renewable sources of energy, the same cannot be said for independent data centre businesses. Spurred by the chance to make a real difference to the planet’s future and sensing potential commercial opportunities to be gained from transferring their energy supply to renewable providers, many of these independent data centres are now boasting power supplies derived 100% from wind and solar.

The commercial benefits are also shared with customers. Renewable energy is not only environmentally and socially responsible, thereby boosting customers’ own green credentials, it’s cost-reliable too.

A persistent problem with fossil fuels is the turbulent nature of their price. With comparatively lower costs involved in harnessing green power - once the machinery is installed - rates look set to remain more stable. After all, the wind that blows and the sun’s rays are free. After the assets that capture both are built, they just keep producing power. And since the associated costs are largely known, renewable energy contracts can have long-term fixed pricing. What is beneficial for the environment, becomes beneficial for the data centre and thus beneficial for their customers.

Improving technologies and processes

Whilst the ability to derive power from renewable sources more easily and more cost-effectively is accelerating the growth of green data centres, improvements in the technologies and processes within the facilities is also having a marked impact.

Devouring vast amounts of the power being channelled into data centres are the cooling systems which prevent the servers from bursting into flames. Traditional systems release untold gallons of cooled air into the entire facility, which is not only monstrously inefficient but also makes for a working environment that is uncomfortably cold.

Improvements in cooling system technology and their increasingly amenable prices is encouraging an ever-greater number of data centres to swap out their old systems for new. These contemporary systems cool the racks at source whilst preventing the cold air from dissipating around the rest of the site. It means less air is needed and visitors need not arrive wearing as many layers.

Some data centres are going further still and installing free EV charging points at their entrances as a way of encouraging staff and visitors to consider making their next car purchase a more environmentally friendly one.

Just the beginning

As with any growing trend in business, it is the late adopters who pay the heaviest price. As governmental, shareholder, customer and public demand for data centres to become sustainable intensifies, resisting change ceases to be an option.

The journey towards total data centre sustainability is far from over but the chequered flag is at least in sight. For those companies who refuse to wait that long and want a data centre partner now that derives 100% of its power from renewable sources and which can demonstrate advanced cooling systems and greener processes, rest assured, they are out there operating today.

Topics: data centres, green data centre, sustainability

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