Data Center Sustainability – The Future is Renewable, Efficient and Innovative

Damien Gaynor, Chief Marketing Officer at Echelon Data Centres, explores the future of data center sustainability and what it will take to reach efficiency goals. 

data center sustainability

Damien Gaynor, Chief Marketing Officer,  Echelon Data Centres

Whether the wider world likes it or not, data centers are a fact of life and their numbers, and their capacity, are increasing exponentially.

When Echelon Data Centres launched in January 2019, with plans for 1 billion euros of investment across two sites in Ireland and a stated strategy of 500 MW of capacity, across five countries, by 2025, its home market comprised 48 operational data centers with 540 MW of capacity.

At the end of Q4 2019, those figures had increased to 60 data centers and 700 MW of capacity. In total, Irish data center capacity in planning, under construction or already operational is over 2GW.

Echelon itself has expanded to four sites in Ireland (DUB10 – Clondalkin; DUB20 – Arklow; DUB30 – Arklow; DUB40 – Grange Castle) and a 20MW capacity tenant-ready site in the U.K. (LCY10 – Isle of Dogs, London). Together, they represent a combined potential capacity of 410 MW.

The growth of the DC sector is driven by the massive growth in the dataverse – the amount of data created each year. This is expected to reach at least 1.75 ZB by 2025 – which in turn is driven by the billion or more people getting online in developing countries, the Internet of Things (IoT) enabling smart cities, connected dwellings and driverless cars and the development of working artificial intelligence solutions.

All of these things – internet access, smart devices, virtual assistants – have come to be seen as basic human necessities, and were confirmed as such during the events of 2020, when the world’s population learnt to rely on tech to keep the show on the road.

This capacity is massively power-hungry – in 2018, data centers were already consuming more than 2% of the world’s electricity. It’s expected that global power consumption will triple in the next five years, with a big contributor being the increase in internet-enabled, data-creating devices.

How do we square this growth in demand for power with the global imperative to reduce carbon emissions and tackle the increasingly immediate problem of climate change head-on?

The answer lies in renewable energy sources, efficiency in data center design, specifically in regard of rack cooling techniques and, ultimately, in innovative new ways of providing power to data processing and storage hardware.

As a starting point, the industry’s minimum benchmark must be to ensure that data centers are, or have the capability of, being powered by 100% renewable energy.  PPAs are a way forward, as is adding renewable power sources to data center sites – wind, or solar, or biomass – and generating a proportion of the energy they consume.

Data center customers make conscious decisions to buy into facilities – and geographies – that can demonstrate their sustainability strategies and credentials and use them to promote the green agenda.

The more demand that this creates allows data center operators – given the constant demand for power from their facilities – to form partnerships with renewable power providers helping them create the justification for greater investment in the renewables sector.

More resilient grid design, battery technology and onsite additionally are small steps that begin to show the path towards more efficient design and less reliance on backup generators.

Wholly sustainably-sourced power is, of course, just one side of the equation. On the other is the need to become more efficient in power usage.  Higher densities will lead to higher running temperatures which increases the need for cooling and the associated power required to run it. These power demands will require greater ingenuity to increase efficiency.

Liquid cooling solutions – full-immersion cooling – are becoming increasingly viable and widespread, and not just for high-density 60 KW to 100 KW racks. Given the reports of Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratios of 1.05 for immersion cooling, versus 1.35 for air-cooling, the benefits of higher energy efficiency and lower operating costs are there for all.

Clearly, immersion cooling solutions are not yet suitable for all facilities, and in these cases, the geographical location of the data center facility can make a real difference. One of the reasons for the rapid expansion of the data sector in Ireland is its climate, which is eminently suited to the needs of an industry that relies on cooling for efficient operation.

Software enabled resilience allied to availability zones can provide flexibility for certain occupiers, that reduces the absolute reliance on N+x redundancy in individual data centers.

More resilient grid design, battery technology and onsite additionally are small steps that begin to show the path towards more efficient design and less reliance on backup generators.

Consistent research and design innovation is another piece of the puzzle – investigating new ways of powering the hardware in the data center directly, without taking power from the grid and reducing reliance on diesel-powered generators as back-up.

We know, from their own blog in 2017, that Microsoft have a vision of building the world’s first gas powered data center, using integrated fuel cells.

“Renewables, efficiency, and innovation” needs to be the industry’s mantra as it moves into the third decade of the 21st century.

The world has become more reliant on data and the devices, applications and programs that generate it and use it to improve the quality of people’s lives. If this is to happen alongside the massive challenge of climate change, then, as an industry we need to adapt and evolve. And do so quickly.

Damien Gaynor is the Chief Marketing Officer at Echelon Data Centres.

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