Sustainable data centres to combat climate change

Ashwinram Meenakshisundaram

In the previous opinion piece, we saw how data sharing can not only help track sustainability goals by governments and private organisations, but also hold them accountable in their progress towards these goals. A clear example of how data sharing can be a solution for climate change. Yet, there is also another side to the coin. Data sharing on a global level means an infinite amount of data needs to be processed and stored, which requires a greater number of data centres. The bigger the data centre, the more electricity they consume, and the more carbon they emit into the atmosphere.

2021 is the fifth hottest year ever recorded and thanks to the pandemic the digital sector has brought about explosive growth in the data industry. It was overwhelming to see that exponential surge in data processing and the greater need for hyperscale data centres emerged to process high-density data with high-level performance with over 100,000 servers. Imagine the amount of Co2 emissions from these hyperscale data centres and most of the data centres still rely on electricity generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Since data centres need to operate and process enormous amounts of data, they need to function 24 hours a day resulting in the consumption of vast amounts of power. Various studies have suggested that these data centres emit more than 0.3% (which is more than twice that emitted by some countries) Co2 and consume more than 2% of the global electricity.

How to make data centres more sustainable and environmentally friendly?

Data centres need to be built in cold conditions, usually in countries that have naturally cold climates. Server centres often burn more fuel to keep up with the ever-increasing power demands and coolants are mostly made up of hazardous chemicals and battery backups needed for the power shortages release more carbon emissions. Google tested this theory by opening a data centre in a colder climate in Hamina, Finland in 2009. Since 2014, with the use of highly efficient evaporative cooling solutions in Google’s data centres they have been using 50% less energy than the industry average. Outside Europe, more and more countries are adopting data localisation laws, which mandate countries to store citizen data on domestically located serv-ers, picking cold climates beyond the domestic borders is no longer a viable option.

Data has become an integral part of our lives and we need to look for alternate methods to reduce carbon emissions from these data centres. Since the emergence of data localisation laws mentioned earlier, we need to look past the need to build temperature-controlled environments. Companies should start using renewable energy sources such as hydro, solar, and wind to power data centres and improve their efficiency. Artificial intelligence is also deployed to reduce power consumption in some data centres as it can analyse data output and humidity temperature, and it can find a way to improve efficiency to reduce total power consumption and cut down costs.

One of the increasingly popular methods being followed in cold climatic regions is the use of waste heat. A data centre operator in Oslo has signed an agreement with the local district heater supplier to warm 5,000 apartments in the city with the heat waste generated by the data centre. Another way to achieve the cooling of the server in data centres is the utilisation of liquid cooling technology while building new data centres. In liquid cooling technology, the servers circulate liquid through water blocks thus emitting less heat. Sourcing healthier materials for the construction of data centres like turbines, compressors, and transformers from vendors prioritising low-carbon production can have a significant impact on sustainability.

These examples show how greener data centres can be built in innovative ways. Sustainable building approaches might look like a long road but ways to do so already exist.

Sustainable data centres to combat climate change
Image credit:
Data Center Knowlegde

For questions and comments, please visit our forum on Futurium.