The huge quantities of data we generate online every day is having an increasingly negative impact on the environment. Chris Seekings examines what is being done to tackle the problem
In an era of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, the amount of data we generate is growing faster than ever. People are also spending more time on the internet, and many are coming online for the first time as developing countries gain greater access.
This is all made possible by power-hungry data centres – some spanning millions of square feet – which store, process and distribute vast quantities of data for billions of people each day. Indeed, it’s estimated that every person will have at least one interaction with a data centre every 18 seconds by 2025 as demand for bandwidth continues to grow.
The owners of this critical infrastructure – such as Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Google – are often tight-lipped when it comes to discussing their data centres as they look to gain a competitive advantage, and the location of these facilities can be shrouded in secrecy. However, with the environmental impact an increasing concern, discussions around the sustainability of data centres are now becoming widespread and transparent.
A growing concern
Debbie Seibold-Egeland, environmental specialist at Jacobs, which acts as a consultant to many data centre owners and co-location providers, has written a report outlining some key sustainability considerations to help shape a green future for the industry. “With the way they are designed, they release a lot of heat, consume a lot of power and use a lot of water,” she says.
They are currently responsible for up to 1.3% of global electricity demand and, along with data transmission networks, account for 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is expected to skyrocket over the next decade, with data centre electricity use estimated to rise about fifteen-fold and account for 8% of projected total global electricity demand by 2030. In Ireland, official figures show that they accounted for 18% of total energy consumption across the country's economy in 2022.
“With the increasing demand for AI and machine learning, the need for computing power is growing exponentially,” Seibold-Egeland explains. “It’s encouraging to see that the data centre industry is taking proactive steps to drive sustainability, setting targets to address this surge.”
Cooling these vast data centres is also critical to maintain performance, with a typical one-megawatt data centre consuming around 6.75 million gallons of water a year using traditional cooling methods. The metals and land used in the construction and operation of data centres are also key sustainability concerns, along with the electronic waste generated.
Thankfully, there are many innovative solutions being implemented to reduce the environmental impact of these centres (see table below).
For example, some companies are using advanced air-cooling technologies, such as adiabatic cooling and free air cooling.
“The first target should be not to use water,” says Seibold-Egeland. “When that’s not possible, instead of using freshwater, you can use recycled water that’s been treated, or sea water cooling methods. There are many options, but where you are in the world will be a big factor in determining what works best.”
When it comes to energy, firms are turning to onsite renewable energy, complemented with battery energy storage systems, while AI and machine learning are also being harnessed to understand how best to cut emissions.
For the data centres themselves, companies are constantly evaluating design and looking to improve efficiency. There is also potential to scale back data centres, seeing as much Cloud usage is waste. “If you look at a computer 30 years ago, it would fill an entire room, but now they fit in your hand,” says Seibold-Egeland. “Similarly, while the digital needs of society increase, hopefully the power usage of data centres decreases due to smarter data centre design.” There is also potential to scale back efficiency,
Northern Virginia is home to the world’s greatest number of data centres, which are typically located on the outskirts of cities where real estate is not so expensive.
When choosing where to build a data centre, the co-location with wastewater treatment plants and hydrogen electrolysers could also be an important sustainability consideration. After using renewable energy sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen from the electrolyser can be used to power the data centre, while the pure oxygen can be utilised by the wastewater treatment plant for aerobic treatment.
“You can then also use that treated water for cooling towers in the data centres, so having those three things near each other provides a lot of synergy,” says Seibold-Egeland. And the huge excess heat generated from data centres can be used for district heating in local communities, reducing overall energy consumption and increasing efficiency.
There are also some very innovative ideas being explored when it comes to the location of data centres. “There’s some really creative stuff going on, like they’re looking at whether they can put data centres at the bottom of the ocean,” adds Seibold-Egeland. “People are asking why we have to have them on land. Can we put them in outer space? There are all kinds of creative ideas happening.”
How we manage data is becoming one of the greatest considerations for businesses worldwide, and tech giants like Microsoft and Google know that they have to keep the environmental footprint of their data centres under control amid the unrelenting march of AI.
In January 2021, more than 100 data centre operators and trade associations pledged to become climate neutral by 2030 by signing the European Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact. “I know there are sceptics out there, who think CEOs are just setting targets when they won’t be there five years from now when the target rolls around,” says Seibold-Egeland. “It’s very ambitious, and it’s going to take a lot of energy and money to achieve that, but as a consultant, I do see those companies putting in a lot of effort, so I’m optimistic, as long as their attention and funding is still there.”
Sharing ideas and best practice on sustainability will be increasingly important for an industry that is notorious for its secrecy. However, collaboration is growing, and the iMasons Climate Accord is also helping companies come together to share ideas on carbon reduction in digital infrastructure. “It’s a world which is very confidential, and if we work with one client, a firewall comes up and we cannot work with a competitor,” says Seibold-Egeland. “But sustainability is the one place I see companies really talking, and accepting that, yes, we want a competitive advantage, but we have to cut emissions, improve air quality, water usage, and everything else, together.”
Read the full report on sustainable data centres at www.bit.ly/JacobsReport