From grey to green: embedding sustainability and ethical practices into data centres

by Chris Roberts, Head of Datacentre & Cloud at Goonhilly

New climate change data from the UN and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), published just ahead of December’s UN Climate Change Conference, make for bleak reading. 

First, the WMO’s latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin warned that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached record highs in 2018.  Just 24 hours later the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published its Emissions Gap Report, warning that the Earth is on course to warm by 3.2C by 2100 even if every country’s current carbon-cutting ambitions are met.

Bleak, but unsurprising. We have all noticed the ratcheting up of extreme weather events, including Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, widespread flooding in the UK, and a devastatingly early bushfire season in Australia.

Industry steps up

Fortunately there is a groundswell of support for accelerated action against climate change, not only from governments and individuals but also industry leaders. At the UN Climate Action Summit in September, over 100 business leaders delivered concrete actions to align with the Paris Agreement targets and speed up the transition from a grey to a green economy.

The data centre challenge

In 2017, Swedish researcher Anders Andrae predicted that by 2025 data centres will use 20% of the world’s energy and be responsible for 5.5% of the world’s carbon emissions – unless there is faster adoption of more efficient energy sources.

Although some data centre operators are making strides in switching to renewable energy, more needs to be done. For example, offering incentives for improved energy stewardship to the plethora of small on-premise legacy data centres that are massively energy inefficient.

Against this backdrop, many data centres globally are experiencing power constraints, while the growth in demand for power-hungry HPC platforms for AI and ML computation is adding further pressure. These HPC systems, some of which are, ironically, helping to solve climate change, also rely on greater processor density than standard servers, making cooling another hot topic.

As the data centre sector increasingly finds itself in the crosshairs of climate change protestors, the race is on to fully embrace self-generated, clean power solutions that visibly move the green needle. To do this we need to embed ethical practices and transparency as a matter of urgency. As the industry has not taken the bull by the horns itself, this likely means more regulation and legislation.

Ethical energy and the need for legislation

To date, our sector has relied on voluntary initiatives such as the Code of Conduct for Data Centres, and the work being done by trade associations such as the Data Centre Alliance in the UK to improve energy efficiency and sustainability. But we are now at a stage where these initiatives need to be augmented with regulations and legislation to accelerate change.

Regulations requiring data centre operators to monitor and manage users’ power usage at a far more granular level is one idea gaining traction. After all, greater transparency in monitoring and reporting will usher in greater efficiencies – a win win. Incorporating these technologies into modern data centres is pretty easy, but retrofitting these systems into leaky, older data centres is a sticking point and will need more work.

Ethical energy

In terms of legislation, the city government of Amsterdam made waves in the summer when it announced it was pausing approvals for the construction of new data centres while it reviewed their impact on the local property market and on power networks.

Despite 80% of Amsterdam data centres’ power requirements coming from green electricity, some parts of the city are suffering from power supply shortages. According to Marieke van Doorninck, Alderman for Sustainability and Spatial Development in Amsterdam, the city is…“going to set requirements in the area of making available residual heat free of charge for the heating of homes and the use of green energy.”


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And in the UK, the trade body Tech UK recently published a data centre report urging data centre operators to improve heat reuse, renewables adoption and energy reporting, and calling for a “coherent” regulatory regime that forces distributed, in-house and public sector IT segments to publish these reports.

What’s coming down the pipe?

As we look ahead to a new decade, what is in store for our industry from an environmental perspective?

New regulations will require the industry to demonstrate greater accountability and transparency on energy consumption and carbon footprints, with the goal of becoming carbon-neutral sooner.

For new data centres, there will be a greater focus on thinking 2-3 years ahead to harness the green energy technologies that will have matured by the time of construction, rather than settling for what’s available at the time of planning.

The world’s first 100% solar-powered supercomputer is now within sight. The race is on, with one focused on HPC photo-realistic rendering due to come on stream as early as 2020, potentially in the UK. While in Texas, Hikari has already laid claim to being the world’s first supercomputer to be partly powered by solar energy (up to 30%), and a 100% solar-powered machine is the goal, despite needing an acre of solar panels to generate the required 1 MW of energy.

Robotically maintained and controlled solar panels with batteries that are 30% more efficient than today’s will gain traction, boosting the ability to generate consistent green power far more cost-effectively.

Researchers in Sweden are working on a new approach to bottling solar energy using a solar thermal fuel that can reportedly store solar energy for over a decade.

Further down the line, wave/tidal power will really start to make waves as a viable option for powering data centres in coastal areas.

For example, Marine Power Systems has developed a wave energy converter with a power capacity that can match the larger offshore wind turbines, which could create a step-change in the commercial viability of wave power.

And the UK’s Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, based in Cornwall, announced in October that it had secured the go-ahead for the €46.8m Tidal Stream Industry Energiser Project (TIGER), to deliver cost-effective tidal stream energy by installing up to 8 MW of new tidal capacity at sites in and around the Channel regions.

There will be widespread adoption of liquid immersion cooling systems, like the one offered by Submer and deployed at Goonhilly’s data centre to cool our managed HPC platform for AI and ML.  Submer’s system is 45-50% more efficient than air cooling, cutting electricity demand in half, and allows us to use the exhaust heat elsewhere.

We will also see AI and ML techniques being used not just to combat issues such as climate change but also to reduce the carbon footprint of compute power over time.

The data centre industry is at an environmental crossroads. Fortunately, the way ahead looks green rather than grey.

And the introduction of planet-friendly regulations and legislation, combined with the adoption of emerging green technologies, will help us to reach our carbon-neutral destination faster.

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