Sustainability must be ‘front and centre’ for data centre operators

2 Dec 2021

Image: © Production Perig/Stock.adobe.com

Verne Global’s Dominic Ward talks about the energy consumption of data centres and why operators won’t be able to get away with greenwashing.

Data centres have been a contentious topic in Ireland in recent months. The giant, energy-guzzling facilities have been debated within the Government for their environmental impact and the toll they may take on the country’s energy supply.

In September, grid operator EirGrid predicted “electricity supply challenges” for Ireland in the coming years in part due to the growth of demand driven by large energy users, and that data centres could account for a quarter of the country’s electricity usage by 2030.

Outside of Ireland, countries such as Singapore and the Netherlands have stopped issuing building permits to data centres because of the pressure they put on national grids.

However, while the energy impact of data centres is undeniable, the need for these facilities to manage the ever-growing levels of data in the world is also not going away.

With that in mind, many companies are hoping to make these facilities more sustainable. For instance, Microsoft plans to reduce water use in its data centres by 95pc by 2024 using a new approach to temperature management.

Meanwhile, UK-headquartered data centre operator Verne Global has a 40-acre data centre campus in Iceland powered by renewable energy. Its CEO, Dominic Ward, said if companies move part of their high-intensity compute to alternative locations that are using renewable energy, it can take pressure of one nation’s grid, while also benefitting from a more sustainable energy source.

“The UN’s recent Climate Change Conference has sparked a new sense of urgency amongst corporations to address the climate crisis,” he said.

“The corporate sector’s eagerness to show that they mean business when it comes to sustainability has also brought a renewed focus on sustainable data centres.”

Ward added that the majority of compute doesn’t need to be located near the end user. “Companies can move their most intensive compute applications somewhere they can be powered with reliable, low-cost renewable energy sources. A location like Iceland with its 100pc renewable energy makes a lot of sense in these circumstances.”

Verne Global recently invested $50m to expand its Icelandic data centre campus by 10MW. As part of the expansion, it partnered with Integra Mission Critical in a bid to optimise the delivery of sustainable high-intensity compute at scale.

“Utilising Integra’s solution-driven engineering expertise to implement modular data centre infrastructure will allow us to increase the speed, scalability and quality of fitting out the new data centre space more cost effectively,” said Ward.

Increasing energy efficiency

While Icelandic data centres may not suit every company, Ward said there are other reasons to be optimistic about the sustainability of data centres.

“The good news is that energy efficiency in data centres is increasing at a rapid rate. The IEA reports that data centre energy consumption has remained flat for the past three years, while workloads and internet traffic have nearly tripled.

“Most of the low-hanging fruit in the area of data centre efficiency has already been picked, such as better airflow management strategies for more efficient cooling and increased server virtualisation to reduce electricity consumption,” he said.

“The best way to match the rise in ICT workload energy will be with a corresponding increase in the usage of renewable energy sources – particularly with respect to high-performance computing, which is one of the largest areas of growth in the ICT sector.”

Unsurprisingly, Ward said sustainability is going to be the one overriding trend that will remain “front and centre for the foreseeable future” within the data centre industry.

“Companies are going to be held accountable for their Greenhouse Gas Protocol Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, making it harder to get away with greenwashing sustainability efforts,” he said.

“Consumers are going to demand real action and the financial markets are going to focus on sustainable investment as well. This is not just a temporary fix.”

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

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