The Heat is on to Reduce IT’s Carbon Footprint

Over the past decade, the pressure has gradually increased on data centers to take responsibility for their energy usage, and for good reason. Data centers and server rooms have been some of the biggest energy hogs around.

As this impact has become more dramatic, the need to reduce IT’s carbon footprint is nearing a critical breaking point. Companies that consume a lot of energy should understand why it’s important to set data centers on a path toward sustainability and how they can measure this effort.

Measuring data center energy consumption

IT’s environmental responsibility became a significant concern when technological innovation demanded more enterprise data center capacity.

“Data center power consumption increased as much as 90 percent in the 2000-2005 period, slowing to 24% in the 2005-2010 period,” said Brad Johns, principal at Brad Johns Consulting. “Researchers estimate that data centers consume 1.8 percent of all electricity in the United States,” he said.

The industry attempted to address this by adopting the Uptime Institute’s Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric. PUE is calculated from the amount of power entering a data center divided by the power used to run the compute infrastructure. 

The ideal for PUE is a score of 1, but the average hovers around 1.6. A data center with 16 MW of energy coming in, for example, harnesses about 10 MW of it to run its IT equipment. 

Adopting this metric has made a difference. Between 2010 and 2020, power usage only rose another 5 percent in data centers worldwide, despite the rapid expansion of cloud computing, hyperscale data centers, real-time analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), smartphones, and video streaming. PUE is viewed as a success in some circles, but others believe it did not go far enough. 

Environmental pressure 

Greenpeace published a study on power demand in the North Virginia Data Center Corridor in Loudoun County, Virginia, the densest concentration of data centers globally. An estimated 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic passes through its facilities, and it keeps expanding—energy consumption there is growing at 10 percent per year. 

Greenpeace estimates that electricity demand for existing and planned data centers in the region will soon reach 4.5 gigawatts, which is equivalent to nine large coal power plants. Statistics like this have heightened concern about IT’s carbon footprint. 

“Reducing carbon emissions is a significant global challenge, and many companies have decided they must incorporate carbon reductions into their strategies and have announced green initiatives,” said Johns.   

The IT world has responded. Dell, Amazon, Verizon, Facebook, and Google are some of the companies that have committed to reducing emissions from their operations and lowering their carbon footprints. Many others are making a commitment to the achievement of net-zero carbon goals. 

The need for a new metric 

PUE should be lauded. It was a step in the right direction. But now a new metric is needed to show environmental responsibility and overall carbon footprint. 

“Environmental sustainability reporting is a growing focus for many data center operators,” said Pankaj Sharma, Executive Vice President, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric. “Yet, the industry lacks a standardized approach for implementing, measuring, and reporting on environmental impact.”

Several frameworks have been proposed to address the disparities of PUE. For example, Schneider Electric put forward a method of standardized environmental-impact reporting for data centers. It consists of five areas of impact and 23 metrics. The result is a data center grading system ranging from beginner to advanced to leader. 

Another framework known as the Data Center Efficiency Evolution Program (DEEP) has been proposed by Informa. It took 18 months to develop, receiving input from scores of data center professionals and extensive piloting in real-world facilities. 

The program offers a series of best practices for sustainable data center operations that aim to make the implementation of sustainability easier for data center managers. It also recognizes those data centers that are employing best practices in sustainability. An industry-approved framework is used to assess and score facilities. 

“This certification represents a very important milestone for our organization,” said Bill Thomson, Vice President of Marketing and Product Management at DC BLOX, one of the data centers involved in the piloting of DEEP. “Not only does it define a new industry standard to measure our sustainability progress against, but also gives our clients peace of mind to know that they are partnering with an organization that takes our responsibility to the environment seriously.”

PUE elements are part of DEEP, but it goes far beyond to delve into water usage, recycling, and airflow, as well as a host of mechanical and electrical factors. 

“You can’t have an impact on what you don’t measure; therefore, companies must establish clear and consistent metrics that account for not only efficient technology but also the consumption (or possible destruction) of natural resources such as water, land, and biodiversity,” said Rob Brothers, an analyst at International Data Corp. 

Sustainable tech is good for business 

Data centers used to be welcomed with open arms in cities and communities as a gateway to jobs and local investment. But the tide has turned. 

Local communities in the U.S., Ireland, Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, and other places have successfully prevented new data centers from opening, killed the expansion plans of hyperscalers, and pressured governments into passing moratoriums on new facilities. These communities and pressure groups are not going to be convinced otherwise by obscure metrics such as PUE. They are demanding real sustainability and environmental stewardship. 

The good news is that those embracing change and dramatically lowering their carbon footprint reap the benefits in their bottom line according to Workiva. Among investors, 66 percent believe organizations and data centers have a responsibility to demonstrate sound Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) performance. And 64 percent of investors plan to pressure companies for more transparency concerning their environmental footprint, emissions levels, and climate responsibilities. 

Quantifying environmental impact alone will not satisfy these expectations. Companies must take their environmental responsibilities seriously, or else risk the consequences on multiple fronts.

Read next: Gain Control of Enterprise’s Great Energy Hog: The Data Center

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been writing about IT and engineering for more than 25 years. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in Florida.

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