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The Importance of Sustainable Data Centers: Why It Matters


Data centers play a critical role in supporting our increasingly connected personal and professional lives in a digital-first world.

The rapid growth of data centers, however, has brought about significant environmental concerns, primarily related to energy consumption and resource usage.

“While we rely on data centers to complete many of our daily business and personal tasks, operating, maintaining, and expanding this critical technology can come with staggering environmental costs,” says Data Center Knowledge. “According to some estimates, the data center industry — from server cooling to new builds — makes up approximately 1 percent of the planet’s power consumption. Running a single supercomputer, for example, can require as much power as entire neighborhoods.”

The need for sustainable data centers has become increasingly important as we strive to minimize our ecological footprint and combat climate change.

“For companies that own, operate, or lease data centers, the sustainability of those facilities has become important in today's business environment,” says S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Industry Takes Note of Eco-Friendly Data Centers

Sustainability is a crucial topic within the data center industry as the key players explore growing energy and water usage, the impact on the environment, the goals of eco-friendly data centers, the benefits of sustainability, the hallmarks of building a sustainable data center, carbon neutrality, and certifications that showcase sustainability efforts.

“As companies dig into the greenhouse gas emissions associated with operating the business, it has become clear for tech-heavy industries that the data centers running their digital infrastructure require some attention,” says S&P Global Market Intelligence.

S&P Global conducted its Voice of the Enterprise survey on data center sustainability and found that regardless of company size and whether the company has set sustainability goals, more than half of the survey respondents feel that the efficiency and sustainability of their data centers are very important issues.

Among the survey findings:

  • 66 percent say the company they work for has set sustainability goals – with larger companies (more than 250 employees) more likely (70 percent) to have set sustainability goals than smaller (fewer than 250 employees) companies (43 percent).

  • 58 percent feel it is very likely that their company will achieve their sustainability goals while 39 percent think it is somewhat likely.

  • 54 percent feel that the efficiency and sustainability of data centers are very important to the organization, with another 30 percent saying it is somewhat important.

  • When opening new data centers, improving the organization’s carbon footprint (32 percent) is just as an important driver as extending global reach (33 percent), because an organization is headquartered in a region (32 percent), and supporting partner strategies/initiatives (32 percent).

“Within the spectrum of sustainability, however, there are multiple aspects that companies should consider and be prepared to act on. Thus far, much of the focus remains on renewable energy, but we anticipate that as companies neutralize the energy they consume with carbon-free energy sources, factors such as diesel generation and water usage will become the focal points,” says the survey authors.

The Growing Energy and Water Usage by Data Centers

Data centers have witnessed a tremendous surge in energy consumption due to the exponential growth in digital services and cloud computing.

These facilities require vast amounts of electricity for servers, cooling systems, and other essential equipment. According to estimates, data centers currently consume around 1-2 percent of the world's electricity supply, and this figure is projected to rise in the coming years.

“Data centers are estimated to be responsible for up to 3 percent of global electricity consumption today and are projected to touch 4 percent by 2030,” says DataCentre. “The average hyperscale facility consumes 20-50MW annually – theoretically enough electricity to power up to 37,000 homes.”

Water consumption is another significant concern associated with data centers, particularly for cooling purposes. Large-scale cooling systems demand substantial amounts of water, putting pressure on local water supplies and potentially leading to environmental consequences such as water scarcity and increased energy consumption for water treatment.

Goals of an Eco-Friendly Data Center

The escalating energy and water usage of data centers has notable environmental impacts. Eco-friendly or green data centers strive to minimize this environmental impact through sustainable practices.

The primary objectives include:

  • Energy Efficiency: Implementing energy-efficient technologies and optimizing energy usage to reduce the carbon footprint.

  • Water Conservation: Employing innovative cooling systems that minimize water consumption and exploring alternative water sources.

  • Renewable Energy: Incorporating renewable energy sources like solar or wind power to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.

  • Waste Reduction: Promoting recycling and responsible disposal of electronic waste to minimize environmental harm.

  • Carbon Neutrality: Offsetting greenhouse gas emissions through carbon credits or renewable energy investments.

  • Lifecycle Assessment: Considering the environmental impact throughout the entire lifecycle of the data center, from construction to decommissioning.

  • Sustainable Design: Incorporating environmentally friendly materials, efficient layouts, and intelligent infrastructure designs.

  • Efficient Cooling: Implementing advanced cooling technologies and efficient airflow management to reduce energy and water consumption.

  • Virtualization and Consolidation: Optimizing server utilization through virtualization and consolidation to reduce overall energy demand.

  • Monitoring and Optimization: Utilizing advanced monitoring systems to track and optimize energy usage, resource allocation, and operational efficiency.

Benefits of a Sustainable Data Center

A sustainable data center offers numerous benefits to both the environment and the data center operators and customers.

“There are many benefits to using sustainable practices in data center design and operation. The first, of course, is to reduce environmental impact. In addition, sustainable data centers can also save money through reduced energy and water consumption and can improve the reliability and performance of the infrastructure,” says data center provider Iron Mountain.

Benefits of a sustainable data center include:

  • Environmental Impact Mitigation: By reducing energy consumption and water usage, sustainable data centers minimize their ecological footprint and contribute to mitigating climate change.

  • Cost Savings: Energy-efficient practices result in reduced operating costs, leading to long-term financial savings for data center operators.

  • Enhanced Reputation: Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability helps build a positive brand image and attracts environmentally conscious customers and partners.

  • Regulatory Compliance: Adopting sustainable practices ensures compliance with environmental regulations and avoids potential penalties or legal issues.

  • Improved Reliability: Sustainable data centers often prioritize redundancy and resilience, ensuring reliable service delivery and minimizing downtime.

  • Customer Satisfaction: Environmentally conscious customers increasingly prefer data centers that align with their sustainability values, fostering customer loyalty and trust.

  • Innovation and Collaboration: Embracing sustainable initiatives encourages innovation and collaboration within the data center industry, leading to the development of new technologies and best practices.

  • Employee Engagement: Promoting sustainability initiatives within the data center fosters employee engagement and satisfaction, attracting and retaining top talent.

  • Long-Term Scalability: Implementing sustainable practices allows data centers to adapt to changing regulations and consumer demands, ensuring long-term viability.

  • Positive Community Impact: Sustainable data centers can contribute to local communities by reducing strain on resources, supporting clean energy generation, and creating job opportunities.

Carbon-Neutral Data Centers: Path to Net-Zero

A carbon-neutral data center aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by offsetting or eliminating its greenhouse gas emissions.

This is typically accomplished through a combination of energy efficiency measures, renewable energy sourcing, and carbon offset projects.

By investing in carbon credits or renewable energy projects, data centers can compensate for their remaining emissions, effectively achieving carbon neutrality and minimizing their environmental impact.

Iron Mountain, for example, is aiming to have all its colocation facilities worldwide to be climate neutral by 2030 by reducing overall emissions to achieve net zero, either by elimination of CO2 emissions or by purchasing credible carbon offset credits.

“To become carbon neutral, a data center must first measure its carbon emissions, and then put in place strategies to reduce them as much as possible. After that, any remaining emissions can be offset by purchasing carbon credits. In addition, data centers can also offset emissions indirectly through investments in clean energy projects or by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs),” says Iron Mountain. “It's important to note that, becoming carbon neutral doesn't mean the data center will not produce any carbon emissions, it means that the data center will produce no more carbon emissions than it can offset through carbon credits or other means.”

Certifications  and Metrics for Sustainable Data Centers

It is hard to keep score without a scorecard and there are several certifications that provide third-party validation of a data center's sustainable practices.

Some prominent certifications include:

  • BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method): BREEAM assesses a wide range of environmental aspects, including energy efficiency, water management, and materials used in construction.

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design): LEED evaluates the sustainability of buildings, including data centers, by considering factors such as energy performance, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and materials selection.

  • ENERGY STAR: The ENERGY STAR label recognizes energy-efficient buildings, including data centers, that meet strict performance criteria.

  • Uptime Institute Efficient IT (EIT) Stamp of Approval: This certification evaluates the energy efficiency and sustainable practices of data centers, specifically focusing on IT equipment and facilities.

  • ISO 50001: This international standard provides a framework for implementing an energy management system, enabling data centers to monitor, control, and improve their energy performance.

In addition to certifications, TechTarget highlights two metrics that data centers can use to measure sustainability efforts:

  • Power usage effectiveness (PUE): Developed in 1997, PUE measures the power consumption of a data center. It is the ratio of the power provided to the data center divided by the power the equipment in the data center uses. The goal is to have the ratio come as close as possible to one, which indicates effective power usage.

  • Carbon usage effectiveness (CUE): This metric was developed by The Green Grid, which is part of the Information Technology Industry Council. CUE helps confirm whether a data center has attained its sustainability goals. It is the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions the data center generates divided by the energy consumption of data center equipment. The goal is to have the lowest possible value, which indicates that the data center is effectively controlling its carbon dioxide emissions and carbon footprint.

“Building and certifying a green data center or other facility can be expensive upfront, but long-term cost savings can be realized on operations and maintenance. Another advantage is the fact that green facilities offer employees a healthy, comfortable work environment. Green facilities also enhance relations with local communities,” says TechTarget.

As the world becomes increasingly reliant on data centers, the importance of sustainability cannot be understated. By addressing the growing energy and water usage, embracing eco-friendly practices, and pursuing certifications, data centers can significantly reduce their environmental impact.

The benefits of achieving sustainable data centers extend beyond the environment, offering cost savings, improved reputation, and enhanced customer satisfaction. By prioritizing sustainability, data centers can play a pivotal role in building a greener, more sustainable future.




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