The digital economy is cleaner than you might think




Carolina Uribe, Energy and Environmental Manager, Telehouse explores the environmental actions taking place in the data centre industry

Data centres (DCs) transmit, receive, process, store and manage digital data and by doing so they support different aspects of our modern economy.  They have become a vital component in our daily lives, in both the way we live and the way we work; from reading through our emails first thing in the morning, accessing files in the cloud throughout the day and streaming content in the evening. Providing access to the data at any time requires DCs to operate 24/7, which means DCs require a constant and reliable supply of electricity.

The UK Government has set challenging carbon reduction targets and enshrined them into legislation. The 2008 commitment to reduce UK emissions by 80% by 2050 has been stretched to net zero emissions by the same date. There are also global reduction targets in place such as the Kyoto Protocol which is an international treaty committed to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations has also set out Sustainable Development Goals to encourage affordable and clean energy and urgent action to tackle climate change.

With the UK being one of the key data centre hotspots across Europe*this raises one very important question: how can DCs continue to support the modern way of life while contributing to challenging carbon reduction targets? At the same time, DCs are also challenged with, balancing growth with efficient use of resources.

Clean commitment

The DC industry has been subject to criticism about the amount of power it consumes and the type of electricity sources used to power its operations (fossil fuels, nuclear power plants or renewables). However, a lot of work is actually being done meaning the industry is greener than many people realise. The DC industry is placing a significant focus on key environmental priorities to ensure that this vital industry can continue to serve people and businesses while also doing its part to cut emissions and protect the environment. So what measures are DC operators taking to achieve these challenges?

The starting point is to understand where all the energy is being consumed within the DC. Using the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) index, DC operators are able to determine the energy efficiency of the DC by dividing the amount of power entering into the DC by the power used to run the computer infrastructure within it. From here, the journey towards identifying efficiency projects and improvements can be effectively measured. One of the most crucial steps in decarbonising DC operations is to address the energy that is sourced to power each centre. A large proportion of the UK’s DCs use only electricity from 100% renewable sources, such as wind or solar power, instead of traditional carbon intensive processes that many industries still rely on electricity generated from  fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

Beyond demonstrating commitment to renewable power, DC providers are also developing their own internal environmental strategies and policies. They are demonstrating best practice in energy efficiency and adopting appropriate international ISO standards in Environment and Energy management (ISO 14001:2015 & ISO 50001:2018). They are measuring and reporting energy use and efficiency through the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) or equivalents, contractually through the Climate Change Agreements. Some are doing this by obligation through regulatory schemes such as EU ETS (EU Emissions Trading Scheme which captures Scope 1 emissions), ESOS (Energy Saving Opportunities Scheme) and SECR (Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting).

DC providers are making sure dedicated, competent energy and sustainability teams are employed to identify energy efficiencies across the organisation’s operations and see projects through to ensure those improvements are achieved.

Not only does adhering to voluntary standards, regulations and frameworks increase the energy performance in DCs, it also reduces energy expenditure for operators and customers. Guidelines such as the EU Code of Conduct for DCs  (Energy Efficiency) were developed over a decade ago and provide DC operators with more than 150 recommendations for improving efficiency. And even though UK DCs are not obligated to follow these regulations, many are taking steps to adhere to these best practices. 

However there is still a lot to be done regarding helping customers to understand their energy impacts of their digital activities and be transparent about the energy they use on behalf of others. Many individual consumers are often unaware of the energy impact of their online activity because there is no price for the signal.  Therefore they need more information to ensure they are making sustainable choices.


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Greener infrastructure

Data centres are becoming increasingly complex over the last few years making the management of data centre infrastructure challenging.  Collecting data from plant, equipment and systems represents a good opportunity to better understand the utilisation and efficiency of sub-systems, optimise processes, create predictive modelling, analytics and forecasting often resulting in lowering costs, improvement of overall system lifecycle efficiency, contribute with greater automation and control  and to contribute to achieve sustainable growth.

Green design is an important part of improving data centre efficiency. By establishing proactive sustainability and efficiency measures at inception and leveraging the latest technology, data centre companies can ensure that their facilities can be operated, maintained and refurbished more sustainably, moving into a more circular use of materials and smarter, cleaner way of consuming energy and water. 

Operating as efficiently as possible means investing in the best technology on the market as well as committing to replacing and upgrading existing technology in older DCs. One of the key challenges that the industry is facing right now is trying to balance cost and upgrading to more efficient technologies to support the UK’s low carbon future. 

With hundreds, sometimes thousands of servers generating heat around the clock, DCs require highly efficient cooling systems to maintain the servers to the most optimum operational temperature. Therefore, cooling is the second largest power consumer in DCs after servers. Some operators have opted to build their DCs in Nordic countries where the colder climate means far less cooling is required. But what about existing DCs that aren’t in colder climates?

Fitting a DC with market leading cooling technology ensures the building can operate efficiently from the outset. The latest cooling technology has been designed with efficiency in mind while older technology continues to be a challenge for DC operators working towards sustainable operations.

Choosing the right DC provider

Whether they realise it or not, nearly everybody in the world is connected to a DC in one way or another. Businesses are nowadays more aware of their environmental obligations and they are willing to work in collaboration with organisations that not only have the right ISO accreditations but also demonstrate a commitment to sustainable growth and efficient use of resources.   Anyone questioning energy efficiency in this industry can take solace in the fact that it is already working hard with regulators and industry bodies to deliver solutions that protect the environment while providing the best possible value and service to all users.

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