David Watkins, solutions director for VIRTUS Data Centres, dispels the sustainability myths that continue to surround the data centre sector
The data centre industry has often been misunderstood by the general public, not just in the UK but around the world.
The recent news that Thames Water was looking into the impact of data centres on water supplies, immediately followed by a story on new housing developments potentially being halted by data centre-related electricity capacity issues, clearly demonstrated the lack of general awareness and knowledge of the sector.
But for those of us working in the industry, these stories only prove to further highlight the lack of understanding of what data centres are, how they operate and their critical importance to modern life.
The truth is that the data centre industry has long been committed to ensuring sustainability and efficiency, with providers working hard to use resources including power and water responsibly. Indeed, companies in the sector are committed to innovative sustainability and renewable strategies that include carbon-zero renewable sources of power, rainwater harvesting, zero water cooling systems, recycling, waste management and much more.
And, as well as recognising this progress, it’s important for people outside of the industry to recognise that data centres are fundamental to the functioning of the economy and modern society.
Simply put, we can’t live with fewer data centres if we want our connected world to stay connected.
What is clear, however, is that the data centre industry has a job to do in terms of educating the wider population on how these facilities work, their importance to all of modern life, and improve the promotion of all the work that has (and is being undertaken) to mitigate data centres’ environmental impact to the general public.
Myth 1: It’s too expensive to be green
This is not the case. Thanks to tax breaks, incentives and diminishing costs for renewable energy (particularly at a time when energy prices are soaring), it’s more affordable – and even cost-effective – for data centres to be a green and sustainable option for businesses.
The energy VIRTUS buys is certified from fully renewable sources. It uses efficient cooling systems, installs charging points for electric vehicles, and typically locates close to public transport locations.
What’s more, the buildings themselves have sustainability accreditation from BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).
And all this doesn’t just improve green credentials, it increases efficiencies and helps to reduce operating costs.
Myth 2: Cooling data centres reduces water supply for household use
A second myth is that data centres use enormous amounts of water to cool equipment and keep facilities working efficiently.
Indeed, it is critical that in order to keep data centres working efficiently, effective cooling systems are vital to maintain optimum conditions in terms of temperature and humidity. And today, more and more providers are turning to chilled water systems as an economical, effective and efficient way to maintain cooling.
What is important to note is that the water used for cooling systems is often sourced sustainably, from bore holes or using impurified water: NOT the supply as we rely upon for household use.
What’s more, the majority of large data centres use ‘closed loop’ chilled water systems, meaning that water is charged into the system during construction and then continually circulated within a facility, rather than needing new water consistently pumped into the building.
A large-scale data centre will be filled with around 360,000 litres of water initially, or the equivalent of a 25 metre swimming pool. Given this water is used as a ‘transport medium’ for heat, rather than being consumed, and that the average life span of a data centre is upwards of 15 years, despite what the headlines say, this is an incredibly efficient use of water.
Other data centres may use indirect evaporative cooling, which does require water periodically for adiabatic functionality, but is more energy efficient so provides other benefits. This type of cooling uses fresh air from outside the building, which is filtered and then delivered into the facility for cooling purposes. This only requires the use of fans, so the overall energy consumption is lower.
As outside temperatures rise, firstly compressors are brought on-line to provide additional cooling and only at high temperatures (24C or higher) is water consumed. Given that data centres operate 24×7, and temperatures above 24C typically only occur for a few hours a day across a small number of months per year, water usage is minimised.
Myth 3: The industry is power hungry and energy intensive
It is acknowledged that the data centre industry requires significant power to operate. But what the headlines fail to mention is that energy consumption is another area where significant environmental strides have already been made. The ability of data centre providers to make use of renewable energy sources has been game-changing in the industry’s pursuit of a sustainable future.
Data centres are also highly focussed on energy efficiency in their day to day operations too, for example limiting power use to essential services only.
Most providers will use LED fittings to reduce energy, supplemented with occupancy sensors in areas that are frequently unmanned so lights will be automatically activated when someone is present.
This can reduce lighting costs in internal areas by 60 percent compared with manual systems on – a saving that is passed on to customers as well as reduce carbon emissions.
Myth 4: Providers are driving progress in sustainability initiatives
We’re fortunate enough to work in an innovative, forward-looking industry – and progress is happening all the time. Many data centre providers are demonstrably driving change and leading by example.
This progress is evident when we look at sustainability statistics.
Currently, many experts estimate that data storage and transmission to and from data centres use 1 percent of global electricity. But this share has hardly changed since 2010, even though the number of internet users has doubled, and global internet traffic has increased 15-fold since.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a visible increase in the number of green initiatives being pursued by some the largest tech companies in the world, and the data centre industry is at the forefront of this change.
Unfortunately, misleading headlines are doing a disservice to an industry that is committed to boosting sustainability and mitigating its environmental impact; and therefore as an industry we must collectively strive to educate and better promote the truth behind these headlines to the general populace.