How data centers can reduce their carbon footprint

By Damien Gallogly
Damien Gallogly, VP Americas West Region at Linesight, explains the steps data centers can take to reduce their carbon emissions

One of the most significant shifts in business over the past two decades has been the rise of cloud-based computing services. This approach has become indispensable for companies of all sizes in almost every industry to not only handle data storage and backup, but also to empower workers to collaborate seamlessly with each other from anywhere in the world.

On the consumer side, the cloud allows people to use email, stream movies and music, turn on IoT (Internet of Things) connected devices, and make video conferencing calls to friends and family.  

The cloud is so pervasive that we don't even think about it anymore, but the concept of data living anywhere often glosses over the fact that information needs to physically reside somewhere. All of the services and data that exist in the cloud are housed and managed in thousands of data centers spread out across the globe, and hundreds more are being added every year. That's a good thing for individuals and businesses, but there is a downside. There are significant environmental issues associated with these facilities.  

It’s these environmental issues that are a huge challenge for the data center industry. After all, our world is increasingly dependent on powerful data centers to support the cloud, but at the same time, we are facing an unprecedented environmental crisis caused in no small part by a heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Experts estimate that data centers can use as much as 400 terawatt-hours (TWh) globally, which is about 2% of the worldwide electricity demand. This generates a substantial amount of greenhouse gases: some estimates say that data centers account for as much as 3% of global carbon emissions, which is roughly equal to the output of the global airline industry.

How is it possible to reconcile these two seemingly opposing challenges? The good news is that there are several ways to make data centers more environmentally friendly, and it goes far beyond looking for alternative sources of energy. The key is to focus on the ways that they are built and operate.  

There is a significant push to make data centers more environmentally friendly in how they operate, and in the materials and techniques used to construct them. Some of the largest companies building these facilities have pledged to be carbon-neutral in both how they power and build their facilities. Not only are they using carbon offsets to reduce their current footprints, but they are also working on ways to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the future. 

The embodied carbon challenges facing data centers

One of the biggest causes of carbon emissions from data centers is the construction of the facilities themselves. Traditional building techniques and materials create a lot of greenhouse gases and other pollution even before the first server is installed. By improving the design and construction process, companies can significantly reduce the embodied carbon footprint of their data centers.  

That's why there is a greater focus on these facilities' embodied carbon, which looks at all the CO2 emitted by the process of manufacturing and installing construction materials on the building site. It includes mining or harvesting raw materials, transportation, processing and refinement, manufacturing, shipment to the project, and construction.

Data centers use a lot of cement, which has a substantial amount of embodied carbon. For every ton of cement produced, 1.25 tons of CO2 is created. Steel is another resource-intensive material that requires iron ore and coking coal to be mined, refined, and shipped to steel mills, where massive blast furnaces melt and combine materials to make the versatile alloy.

The process generates a significant carbon footprint. Then there is the heavy equipment on the job site like earthmovers, graders, dump trucks, and cranes – all of which run on fossil fuels. So even if a data center is powered by solar or wind, a significant environmental impact has already happened by the time it goes online. 

There are several ways to reduce the embodied carbon in building a data center. The easiest might be to renovate existing structures, because upgrading a building can eliminate about 78% of the carbon emissions of a new building. Another approach is to build with materials that have less embodied carbon.

New forms of concrete are being developed that include waste CO2, and its use could eliminate 500MT of carbon dioxide a year by 2030. And because transportation of raw materials and finished products can create enormous amounts of waste carbon, companies should look at locally sourcing materials rather than having one shipped from other parts of the country or around the globe. 

How data centers can reduce fossil fuel use 

Even if embodied carbon is reduced or eliminated, the battle is just beginning. That's because it takes a staggering amount of energy to power servers, hard drives, and cooling systems.  

Once a data center is up and running, operators need to find ways to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. This starts with determining power usage effectiveness (PUE) to gauge how efficiently their facilities use power. All the servers in a data center generate a tremendous amount of heat, requiring cooling systems that consume a lot of power.

That’s one reason why companies are looking for other ways to lower the temperature, including using outside air, lakes, or seawater to keep their critical equipment from overheating. Having the capacity to use them is essential, but being able to turn them off significantly lowers consumption. Finally, many data center operators are looking to power their facilities using renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal, or hydroelectricity.  

Data centers aim for net-zero by 2050 

Hundreds of companies worldwide have pledged to be net-zero by 2050, such that their emissions will equal the amount of greenhouse gases removed from the atmosphere. Some are working for absolute zero, which means they will not emit any GHGs from their operations. This will require renewable energy, improvements to battery storage, and carbon capture and sequestration technology. 

The giants of the data center industry are laser-focused on sustainability and eliminating their carbon footprint. They are looking at all the possible ways to meet the goal of being carbon-neutral now and net-zero soon. They will achieve these objectives through innovative designs, new building sites, renewable power, and embracing sustainable materials. All of this together can lower operating costs for these facilities. These companies must share their best practices to help others work more efficiently. This will allow the world to stay connected, while also helping the environment.  

Damien Gallogly is Vice President, Americas West Region at Linesight. He has worked on a number of large-scale projects across the US, UK, Ireland, Middle East and Asia, across a range of multinational clients, supporting their development programs with valued, strategic counsel.  

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