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Quantum leaps and low carbon clouds – the future of our global digital footprint

Sustainability By Benny Cheah, Associate Director, Building Services – 28 October 2021

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Benny Cheah

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According to the World Economic Forum [i], the amount of data in the digital universe reached 44 zettabytes in 2020 – which translates to around 40 times more bytes of data in the digital realm than there are observable stars in the physical universe.

Once upon a time, this information and data would have been saved on paper. Printing presses were the engine rooms of our industrialised economy. In today’s digital revolution, data centres are the world’s engine room. Hyperscale data centres that can host 5,000 servers are proliferating, and according to research by Dr Melvin Vopson from the University of Portsmouth [ii], around 100 new ones are being built every two years.

But this digital footprint presents a new challenge: addressing the emissions footprint of the data centres.

Data centres are both increasing in size and in number of facilities, and they require a substantial amount of energy to operate. They also have stringent requirements around reliability of energy supply and maintaining a suitable indoor environment.

There are three dimensions to the carbon footprint we consider in terms of data centre design and operation. The scope 1 emissions are the direct emissions generated during operation. These are largely due to the need for stand-by power in event of grid disruptions and currently; diesel generators are generally the solution for this.

From a technical perspective the challenge is how to engineer out (fossil fuel) diesel while still ensuring uninterrupted energy for the global hive mind?

There is a significant amount of capital and customer satisfaction resting on reliability, through tried and tested solutions which adds a layer of complexity for any data centre operator to embrace the risk of trying something new. We do believe renewable energy storage, hydrogen fuel cells and other low-carbon backup energy options will become standard in the near future.

A data centre’s Scope 2 emissions are generated by the energy they consume from the grid. There are several aspects to reducing these including installing solar PV on the rooftop. Given the box design of most data centres, this is relatively straightforward, although in a lot of instances a competing priority with roof top plant/equipment. Procuring green energy under a power purchase agreement is also an option.

But the other part of that equation is ensuring the centre is as energy-efficient as possible. For the data hall – the brains trust at the heart of operations – insulation and energy-efficient HVAC are key. Configuring thermal set points to the optimum balance of temperature is also vital as it allows for the effective management of heat generated by the racks and equipment and the energy required.

For other parts of data centres including the customer-facing spaces, reception, staff offices, loading docks and other functional areas, the techniques of passive design including daylighting, natural or mixed-mode ventilation, high-performance glazing and façade insulation all play a part in reducing energy consumption.

Prioritising energy-efficiency in early design allows for solar PV and other solutions to be scaled to suit an optimised energy consumption profile.

Scope 3 emissions are those indirect emissions that are part of the company’s global operations. These can add up as they include flights and land transport for staff and executives and emissions associated with the supply chain and logistics. The gradual electrification of sectors including transport, logistics and manufacturing will eventually reduce this footprint. Until then, procurement decisions and carbon offsets are the best available lever.

Overall, it is entirely possible using current technology and evidence-backed engineering innovation and design to deliver a zero-carbon data centre.

You might be asking about now, “So, why should we? Does it matter?”

It most certainly does matter. As other businesses and global corporations go carbon neutral, their data centre or internet service provider is going to be part of the scope 3 emissions they are keen to reduce.

Data centre operators that have emissions reduction goals as part of a corporate social responsibility attract customers who also have CSR targets. In this highly competitive sector, reducing emissions and operating sustainably is a market edge.

More broadly, it is also extremely sensible, as a resilient, energy-efficient, renewably-powered data centre is also a cost-effective one.

Fact Box:
Every day humans generate approximately:
500 million tweets
294 billion emails
4 million gigabytes of Facebook data,
65 billion WhatsApp messages and
720,000 hours of new content added to YouTube.
(Source: Dr Martin Vopson, The Conversation)

One connected car generates 4 terabytes (1,000,000,000,000 bytes) of data – by comparison, the 1969 Apollo spacecraft’s guidance computer had 74 KB ROM and 4 KB RAM.

By 2025, the WEF predicts the amount of data generated globally each day will reach 463 exabytes – one exabyte equals 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes.

[i] How Much Data is Generated each day? World Economic Forum

[ii] The World’s Data Explained: how Much We’re Producing and Where It’s all Stored, Martin Vopson