According to the International Energy Agency, data centres use about 1 per cent of the world's electricity.
The rapid pace of digital transformation over the past decade, has made data centers a more critical part of infrastructure than ever before. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that data centers are the lifeblood of the new data-driven digital economy. However, the energy requirements of data centers are tremendous, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimating that they account for around 1% of global electricity consumption.
Amidst growing concerns about the climate crisis, and the drive towards sustainability across sectors, there is a definite need to make data centers ‘green’, by optimizing their energy consumption, and reducing their carbon footprint. A transition to renewable energy sources, optimum use of natural resources, energy-efficient design, and cooling systems, are some of the measures to build a more sustainable data center.
In the move towards green data centers, renewable energy is one of the key pieces of the puzzle. According to a recent survey by S&P Global Market Intelligence, 50% of respondents highlighted the need to increase the use of renewables in data centers. Wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal are among the key renewable energy sources that data center operators across the globe have invested in.
While these renewable energy sources will certainly go a long way towards making data centers more sustainable, at present they do pose flexibility challenges due to their intermittent nature – not just to data centers but to electric grids themselves. Renewable energy generation can vary by the minute, hour, day and season.
Innovation in renewable energy technologies is ongoing in order to address some of these challenges. In the meantime, particularly from the point of view of the developed developing world like us, nuclear power could be also an effective option for green data centers. Nuclear power has the advantage of being a reliable source of clean energy, with a minimal carbon footprint.
Given the limited availability of grid power, especially while using renewable energy sources, data center operators can focus on building distributed modular data centers. These data centers are capable of leveraging renewable energy in a more efficient and flexible manner.
Energy Efficient Designs & Processes
Energy-efficiency , optimum use of natural resources and effective waste management are also key to making data centers sustainable. Cooling systems are a particular area of focus, given that this alone can account for as much as 40% of total energy consumption at a data center. There have been a number of innovations to address this challenge.
Liquid cooling is one highly energy efficient solution being adopted by high-density data centers. According to Gartner, liquid cooling is up to 3000 times more effective than air cooling as it cools the heat source, namely the servers, directly rather than cooling the entire space.
AI-assisted automatic cooling control is another solution that is being actively explored. This involves leveraging real-time data from sensors to predict consumption patterns and optimize energy use for cooling.
Managing and minimizing e-waste is a significant priority for green data centers. Liquid cooling proves beneficial in this regard compared to air cooling, as the latter requires large electrical units which eventually become e-waste. Moreover, data centers should have a robust IT asset disposal program – one that incorporates responsible e-waste disposal, as well as recycling practices.
Using green-certified products, recycling and using treated wastewater, eco-friendly refrigerants and fire-suppressants, replacing emergency diesel generators with fuel cells, and replacing lead acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries – are all additional measures that can be taken to make data centers green.
Cost-Effectiveness Through Sustainability
Green data centers will certainly require significant investment in the short term, both financially as well as in terms of navigating through the technological, logistical and operational complexities involved. However, when examined from a more long-term perspective, sustainable practices improve the return on investment (ROI) on data centers.
The operational costs of a data center over a two-decade period can be as high as 3 to 5 times the capital costs. By going green, and thus improving productivity and efficiency, these operating costs are significantly reduced. Thus, over time, a green data center has a much lower total cost of operation (TCO).
Sustainability in data center operations is thus not only an ethical and environmental friendly choice, but in the long run a more fiscally prudent one as well.
Towards a Greener Future
As an increasing number of data center users, clients and hyperscalers prioritize sustainability, green data centers will become the norm. The industry, led by major players such as Google and Facebook, has already paved the way for this with a commitment to make 75% of data center energy consumption renewable or carbon-free by 2025, and completely climate neutral by 2030. In the Indian context, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has long played a proactive role in developing energy-efficiency standards and best practices over the past decade.
Beyond the long-term financial and ecological benefits, bringing sustainability to its data center operations will also significantly enhance an organization’s brand value. This will enable it to position itself as a responsible and green brand thereby attracting environmentally conscious customers and stakeholders.
(The author is Principal Architect - Data Centers Services, Aurionpro Solutions)