This month sees an historic meeting of the world’s leaders in Paris for the COP21 Climate Change Summit. It’s the UN’s attempt to finally fix the problem of rising global temperatures caused by disastrous carbon emissions, with the aim of agreeing targets between governments to keep carbon emissions in check. This, of course, affects data centres – high users of energy and culprits of some fairly high carbon emissions.
In the UK, not only do data centres have to meet massive demand from the thousands of businesses turning to cloud computing every month, but they are also under increasing pressure to adhere to strict environmental regulations drafted by the UK Government, energy regulators and climate change campaigners.
By their very nature, data centres consume vast amounts of electricity and no one can deny that they have a negative impact on the Earth’s environment. IT operations as a whole now contribute to more than 10 percent of the Earth’s total electricity usage.
As more devices come online, the stress on data centres is only intensified. In May’s ‘Clicking Green’ report from Greenpeace, the environmental campaigning organisation claimed that “publishing conglomerates now consume more energy from their data centres than their printing presses,” struggling to meet the demand for cloud-based consumption of media across a plethora of devices.
Furthermore, Greenpeace found: “Colocation companies continue to lag far behind consumer-facing data centre operators in seeking renewable energy to power their operations.”
And with demand only set to rise, the impact of data centres on the environment is set to dramatically increase exponentially over the next few years.
In 2014, research house Anthesis said that data centre power consumption is projected to increase to roughly 140 billion kilowatt-hours annually by 2020, requiring the equivalent annual output of 17 new power plants and emitting nearly 150 million metric tons of carbon pollution annually.
The UK Government decided last year to help address these power and environmental issues after campaigning from TechUK which wanted UK data centres involved in a new legislation.
In July 2014, the government released the Climate Change Agreement (CCA) for standalone data centres, with the aim of making the UK’s data centres more efficient.
The CCA was the result of chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne announcing that data centre vendors would not be accountable for blanket carbon taxes.
In place, UK data centre would be subject to their own, dedicated climate change agreement that was on par with other industries that are energy intensive.
The agreement looks to save many data centres around 1.5p on every kiloWatt hour of power they use and requires them to take steps to improve their energy efficiency. Shared data centre spaces which sign up to the deal will not have to pay the Climate Change Levy (CCL) – a green tax included in energy supplies – and can opt out of the remains of the last government’s CRC carbon reduction scheme.
“This only applies to colocation sites, because a colocation facility can meet the requirement that the cost of their data centre energy makes up ten percent of their turnover, and enterprises cannot demonstrate this,” said Emma Fryer, head of climate change programmes at TechUK.
The voluntary scheme has a dual purpose of not only trying to protect energy intensive sectors but also improve the energy efficiencies within those sectors.
The data centre CCA’s preliminary target is a 15 percent reduction in PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) over the initial lifetime of the scheme, which ends in 2020.
But the UK has tough competition. Take Iceland, for example. Whilst also offering incredibly low corporate tax, Iceland’s electrical grid is ranked amongst the most efficient in the world. A vast majority of power is sustainable, either coming from geothermal or hydroelectric sources.
TechWeekEurope spoke to Matthew Larbey, Product Strategy Director at VIRTUS Data Centres. He said that the future of boosting data centre efficiencies lies in models of self-generation of power.
“What we’re now starting to look at is how we can self-generate for the data centre as a whole, and look at the power grid as just one source of generations,” he said.
Larbey brought up alternatives for generation such as battery power, highlighting Tesla’s battery wall as a technology that could become an option in the long-term future. Solar power is also an option for data centres in the UK, but Larbey explained how the physical location of data centres is something that prevents a lot of momentum into using renewables in the country.
“We are big consumers of power today, but not generators of power,” he said.
We need only to look across the pond to see efforts by US cloud giants in keeping their emissions in order by using renewables. Amazon Web Services has spent much of this year heralding its newly-built wind farms as a way to protect the environment in the future.
“In reality, you are taking a mix of renewable and standard. You’re reliant on the grid provider to add a renewable amount to your grid supply. It’s not like we’re connecting to a solar farm next door. Where we build, fundamentally, is close to or nearby by urban areas,” said Larbey.
“You can go out to Wales, but the distance from the gravity wells of interconnection gets higher. There aren’t many solar farms or renewable energy sources popping up in the areas you need.
“We need to start thinking about solutions like fuel cell technology, but people are going to be nervous about large amounts of hydrogen being shipped around. It’s the same for nuclear. In theory, in 10 to 15 years’ time, you will be able to buy a small nuclear reactor, build a data centre around it, and then that data centre is self-powered.
“The challenge is the policies of enabling data centres to become creators of their own powers. Also, people obviously have problems with anything nuclear being located anywhere near an urban area. So you’re going to have this push and pull of the need to drive the efficiencies and not be dependent on the grid, but at the same time being able to satisfy local concerns and needs.”
But nuclear power seems to have already found traction for data centres in other countries. Just this week, Russia’s only nuclear power plant firm, Rosenergoatom, announced it would be building a data centre alongside a nuclear power plant.
The idea of locating the data centre next to a power source echoes the moves in the United States, where for example numerous data centres in Oregon are situated next to hydroelectric facilities.
It seems to be a case of the answer coming just around the corner for renewable energy sources in the UK. That answer is not necessarily wind or solar, but data centres having the technology to generate their own power sources on site that don’t rely on fossil fuels.
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