Society has been rocked over the past year by dozens of high-profile climate change protests. Across Europe, the Americas and beyond, millions of students and wary citizens have taken to the streets to raise their concerns over the state of our planet.
With an increased awareness over the long-term impact of climate change, questions over our energy consumption, use of automobiles and air travel have all arisen.
However, the impact of society on the environment isn’t restricted to our transportation methods, how we heat our homes or how we deal with waste.
‘Data is the new oil’, as the saying goes, and our data-driven, connected society craves information. The critical lifelines which ensure the flow of that information are data centres – and they consume a lot of energy.
The power demand of Britain’s data centre sector ranges between 2-3TWh (TeraWatt hours) each year. Data centres require energy for two key operational aspects, mainly to run the IT equipment they hold, and to cool the site to ensure the reliability of the equipment itself.
Data centres are to our digital economy what heavy industries are to a manufacturing-based economy – critical. They’re the “fourth utility behind water, power and sewage”, according to Danny Quinn, managing director of multi-cloud service provider DataVita.
DataVita operates Scotland’s first and only purpose-built Tier 3 data centre, helping to provide critical infrastructure services that support organisations, local authorities and government services across the country.
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DIGIT caught up with Quinn to explore the environmental impact of data centres and how we can maintain the lifeblood of a modern, connected society without damaging the planet further.
While tackling climate change will require a global effort beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed, Quinn believes that Scotland can help lead the way in promoting and championing the sustainable use, operation and design of data centres.
“Data centres are seen globally as one of the biggest contributors – in terms of industry – to CO2, due to the amount of power that’s required to run and maintain equipment,” Quinn explains. “But, the data centre sector, as a whole, is probably one of the most forward-thinking industries in terms of thinking about how we can mitigate this impact and be as responsible as possible.
“Just like every other sector, we have a responsibility to make sure that we’re being as sustainable and responsible as possible.”
Design, Quinn says, is key to ensuring the modern data centre is as efficient and sustainable as possible. DataVita operates a purpose-built, future-proof site which offers huge advantages over traditional centres; which often lack the efficiency of their newer counterparts.
“A lot of other data centres are converted additional-use facilities, such as warehouses or an old office block,” he asserts. “There are always going to be compromises in regards to efficiency when you’re converting an older building. Whereas our site and location, as an example, were selected so that there were no compromises having to be made.”
At their own location, DataVita uses no traditional mechanical cooling methods – that means no conventional air conditioning systems that are commonly found in others and no refrigerant. Instead, the firm uses indirect evaporative cooling.
“We basically use our lovely beige climate and weather to cool the equipment using very little water,” he explains.
With many data centres, operators cool an entire room – a process which Quinn says lacks efficiency and consumes more power than is actually required.
“We focus the cold air where it needs to be, so in front of the IT equipment or in the data halls. We also operate additional maintenance measures and operating procedures to make sure there’s no equivalent to someone leaving a door open, for example,” Quinn notes.
Looking at the physical design of a centre or an area that requires cooling, as well as the equipment itself can make “significant cost savings” just by how an organisation operates the space, he adds. “This is all about behaviour as well, so you need to ensure you’re monitoring as efficiently as possible.”
“How the rooms flow, for instance, is very important. A lot of that conditioned air can start seeping out of a window, or a door. Even cabling that’s installed; you must consider if it’s blocking the flow of air and making the equipment work harder,” he continues.
Long-term, renewable energy will be a key component in maintaining our data-driven society, Quinn believes. This is an area where Scotland can take advantage of its geography and climate and truly lead the way in sustainable data centre operations.
“A big move for the data centre will be to move our facility 100% to renewable energy,” he says. “That means keeping the data centre pretty much off-grid by both creating and storing our energy.”
“In Scotland, it’s mostly wind power. However, people are starting to use tidal power and solar farms,” Quinn adds.
Earlier this year, Simec Atlantis announced a partnership with engineering firm AECOM to explore the possibility of building a tidal-powered data centre in Caithness. The site itself will be powered by turbines located at the company’s nearby MeyGen site.
Advances in battery technology are also helping to improve sustainability and efficiency, providing data centres with the means to store the energy that has been locally-generated.
“With any data centre, if the wind stops blowing and you’re running low on power, that’s a huge problem,” he insists. “You can’t have the facility switching off or going back onto mains regularly.”
“The battery tech, however, has advanced so much in the last five years that’s it’s now commercially viable for facilities such as ourselves to look at generating our own 100% green energy, storing it, and consuming it,” Quinn says. “Any leftover capacity that they have generated can also be exported back into the grid. So it’s a two-fold impact with what we are doing.”
The use of this left-over energy capacity could benefit households across the country. In the Nordics, which is increasingly recognised as an ideal location for data centres, a number of companies have explored how to leverage the clean-energy focus across the region. Indeed, data centre operator Digiplex has reused waste heat to warm more than 5,000 homes in Oslo.
Ultimately, simple changes can go a long way to improve the environmental impact of data centres, Quinn asserts. In fact, by moving just two megawatts of data centre load from in-house public sector data centres, the savings alone are significant.
“By doing this, the saving is roughly £1.7 million per year in energy costs,” he claims. “It also removes over 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 from the environment. The positive impact of such a small change is really significant.”