4 bright spots on the horizon for the data centre industry

16 Aug 2022

David Watkins. Image: Virtus

Virtus’ David Watkins looks ahead at what the next year holds for data centre providers on the journey towards sustainability.

One of the technology industry’s big success stories is the significant difference data centre providers are making with their sustainability efforts. A power-hungry sector, today’s data centres are expanding and improving their use of renewable energy and employing many other efficiency-enhancing methods to meet their green ambitions.

The most progressive providers have been praised for taking a holistic approach – looking at how to be more environmentally sound at every stage of their development, from design to construction to ongoing maintenance and development.

But whilst there’s lots of progress to recognise and celebrate, there’s even more to come. In the year ahead, data centre providers will continue to make significant strides as they work towards their collective green goals. Indeed, operators and trade associations alike have committed to the European Green Deal, promising to make data centres climate neutral by 2030.

With the brightest minds in the industry now working together to drive this ambition, there is plenty to look forward to.

A commitment to collaboration

Most experts agree that it’s only by working together that we will take the necessary steps to truly make the data centre industry sustainable in the long term.

And it’s likely that we’ll see even more collaboration in the months to come, from sharing best practice to setting up multi-organisational task forces to boost initiatives and drive progress. It’s also likely that there will be more international collaboration as providers see the progress made across the globe and move to emulate innovative projects.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of inspiration in the market, with major providers looking at everything from innovative cooling systems, to the optimum location for data centre operations that will boost their green credentials.

An end to greenwashing

Like so many other businesses, the data centre industry has been accused of greenwashing, where sustainability promises are simply handy ‘PR tactics’ rolled out to impress customers. However, data centre providers are more clued up about what it means to be truly green and realise that they must truly ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to sustainability.

We’re seeing providers understand the need to ‘prove’ their operations are sustainable – adhering to third party standards such as BREEAM (which looks at the green credentials of the built environment) and prioritising industry-standard certifications throughout their operations.

In the year ahead, more providers will look outside of their own operations in order to demonstrate the extent of their green credentials. Until now, we’ve seen companies successfully tackle their Scope 1 emissions (those from owned or controlled sources) and their Scope 2 emissions (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling).

However, a big focus in the year ahead will be tackling Scope 3 emissions, which include the indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain such as business travel, purchased goods and services, waste disposal and even employee commuting.

By measuring their Scope 3 emissions, data centre providers will be able to assess where the emission hotspots are in their supply chain, identify energy efficiency and cost reduction opportunities, and engage suppliers and assist them to implement sustainability initiatives.

Of course, good communication will also be key to making this happen. The savviest providers will look to collaborate with their partners, customers and peers to minimise environmental impact, and complement customers’ own sustainability programmes.

A super-charged circular economy

The idea of a circular economy isn’t new, but I believe the ‘maintain, refurbish, renew and recycle’ model is likely to become even more prevalent in the months and years ahead. From committing to get more life out of all materials in a data centre (maintaining equipment) to refurbishing hardware where possible, and then recycling parts that can’t be reused, there are plenty of benefits to be had.

But establishing a circular economy isn’t without its challenges. Most pressing is that many data centre providers don’t own the IT equipment they host and so must rely on their customers to take the lead in adopting the approach.

This means that there will be a sustained effort from data centre providers to educate and encourage partners and customers to embrace the model. And we’ll witness a move away from solely focusing on IT hardware and applying the same principles to the wider infrastructure of a facility, which is the area that data centre providers can control.

For example, at Virtus we identified an opportunity to improve the section valves deployed in our fire suppression systems. Our goal was to introduce enhanced functionality, which was challenging to do in situ, so we fabricated a small number of the new configuration valves off-site. We swapped out some valves on-site and returned the originals to the manufacturer for ‘part harvesting’. They dismantled the original valves off-site and reused most of the parts to create more enhanced valves, which were returned to site and installed. The result was little waste, lower cost and speedier installation.

Evolving practices

As well as these new initiatives, current practices will evolve. Technology innovation and new ways of thinking will further cement the good work that is already happening.

The ability of data centre providers to harness renewable energy sources has been game-changing in the industry’s pursuit of a greener future. In parallel, data centre providers have been looking closely at the fuel sources they use with significant progress. The use of hydrotreated vegetable oil instead of diesel in our generators has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90pc, as well as eliminating sulphur dioxide emissions and reducing harmful nitrogen oxides.

New innovations like these promise to pay dividends in the long term. Technological developments in areas such as fuel cells are continuing at a pace. Whilst they aren’t viable at this time, if and when they can perform at scale, they might present a compelling option for future green data centre power.

By David Watkins

David Watkins heads up the solutions team at Virtus Data Centres, working with customers to provide customised solutions. He has been at Virtus since 2009, where he was previously head of operations. UK-headquartered data centre provider Virtus has committed to only using energy from 100pc renewable sources.

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