The 2030 sustainable data centre – the journey to a carbon net zero data centre industry
Sustainability is both a journey and a destination. For data centres to become truly sustainable there are many things that must change and some things that must end.
Large hyperscale investments in building sustainable power infrastructure and buying clean energy is putting data centre operators at the nucleus of a revolution.
Sustainable power generation in conjunction with high utilisation levels places new demands on the grid. Much effort and research are being undertaken into smart grids and ensuring power grids will be stabilised in the future. The development of nonsynchronous microgrids, point to less dependence on synchronous machines in power stations. For example, it raises the prospect of data centre on-site generation and energy storage being used for demand response to compensate for grid frequency and sag events and provide short-term operating reserve.
But renewable power generation and greater use of more efficient, localised data centre embedded generation is just the beginning.
First steps to transition
Both outside and inside the data centre we can expect new designs to phase out reliance on dirty energy and probably dispense with what are essentially stranded assets, such as single mode standby power devices. However, there will be a gradual transition period and reliance on legacy standby power and energy storage are likely to continue for some time yet. This will remain the case until the vast array of lower carbon on-site energy sources is more widely accepted and integration of data centres to the utility gains wider acceptance.
For the data centre itself, eventually it is essential that bi-directional energy flow with the utility will become the norm. With the shift to wind and solar based renewables changing the nature of power distribution from steady state to variable, data centres could become energy storage plants feeding power back to the grid at times of low demand when excess power is available.
Contemporary energy storage using lithium-ion batteries could be augmented or surpassed with alternative battery types technologies such as liquid air. Proof of concept projects using hydrogen fuelled reciprocating engines, turbines or various fuel-cell technologies, appear promising and can be expected to be scaled up.
Regulation and investment
On the regulatory side the EU says ICT services must be carbon neutral by 2030. Blackrock, with $7.8trillion under management, the world’s largest financial asset manager, and no small user of data centres has described climate risk as investment risk.
The IEA says that renewables will be the single largest energy source by 2025, accounting for around 30% of output. The move away from fossil fuels is accelerating. The world economy is decarbonising and for the data centre industry this is an opportunity to be at the forefront of advances in cleaner energy use, storage and provision.
What is also clear is that power chain design inside data centres must become adaptable, to mitigate the perennial issue of unused capacity and overprovisioning.
The era of over-capacity and fixed infrastructure designed for peak load resulting in stranded and wasted energy must come to an end. For those who design, build and operate data centres the day of relying on more and more infrastructure with static resilience appears to be over.
Data centres are not about to become sustainable black boxes overnight. Yet, it is clear that the path to sustainability will converge with enhanced infrastructure automation through more sophisticated monitoring, and AI based control systems.
A road map to sustainability
Just a few years ago it was thought that data centres would only get bigger with hundreds of large hubs operating in the hundreds of MW range being built. And we could expect many hundreds more.
In the next ten years data centres at scale will be built upwards as well as outwards. These large buildings will be the central hubs of hundreds of thousands of smaller edge data centres being located close to users on streets, in mobile network towers, warehouses, factories and transport hubs.
Data centre MEP design is entering a new era. The provision of sustainable power delivered efficiently on an as-needed basis, without sacrificing reliability and availability, is the ultimate goal for all data centre operations.
A practical roadmap toward GHG abatement and carbon net-zero data centres by 2030 is required.
Culturally, the data centre sector has changed. On its shoulders is a great responsibility to make the many advances necessary to become a sustainable industry. The world is watching.