Data Center Sustainability Predictions, Hopes, and Questions for 2024

Industry experts outline the key challenges and opportunities for data center sustainability in 2024.

Henry Chapman, Contributor

February 6, 2024

5 Min Read
Eco sustainability goals in tiles Environment concept 3D

Amid the rapid growth of AI and video-streaming sectors, analysts look ahead to some of the most promising data center sustainability developments and forecast what work will need to be done for the industry to move closer to reaching its green aspirations.

Expect Innovations in Liquid Cooling Products and AI

Greater adoption of liquid cooling solutions is one of the innovations Dan Thompson, Principal Research Analyst for Data Centers at S&P Global Market Intelligence, believes will drive energy efficiency across the industry.

“The question,” he said, “is how quickly these new cooling systems will be rolled out. All the major providers have announced liquid cooling products or initiatives in the last six months… We’re definitely early days.”

But Thompson is hopeful that push toward greater efficiency “could help lower the overall power demand of [data center] facilities, ultimately reducing their carbon footprints and strain on the grids.”

McKinsey Knowledge Expert Arjita Bhan and Associate Partner Raman Sharma agreed that liquid cooling is one of the key technological advances to keep an eye on this year. Optimizing operations with AI is another. These innovations are “particularly important as growth in AI workloads increases the need for more ‘power-hungry’ servers,” Bhan and Sharma said.

Related:What Data Center Sustainability Trends Will Shape the Industry in 2024?

Smaller Companies Are Following Big Tech’s Example

Thompson cited the leadership of large tech companies – including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta – for inspiring the data center industry to invest in sustainability initiatives.

Echoing Data Center Knowledge columnist Christopher Tozzi, who recently wrote about water efficiency as a trend in the market, Thompson praised these tech companies for “paying attention to much more than just the power they consume… as many are participating in water initiatives to be net water neutral, as well as other environmental and social issues.” Thompson says this is a positive trend.

“To their credit, the world has asked enterprises to do something about their impact on the environment and communities where they reside, and these companies have responded in a big way.”

Regulation Is Helping, But More Will Be Necessary

These tech giants, Thompson says, are responding to social pressure. In some cases, they are also responding to governmental regulations. Bhan and Sharma singled out Singapore as an example of government oversight that helps ensure data centers run efficient operations. “Singapore imposed a moratorium on data center construction and only recently relaxed the requirements… One of the major selection criteria was sustainability.”

Related:Data Center Sustainability: 5 Overlooked Strategies for Improvement

Another example of governments seeking to ensure sustainability in data centers is the European Commission Joint Research Center’s European Code of Conduct for Data Centers, which laid out a voluntary Code of Conduct for data center best practices and counts more than 500 data centers among its list of members. A committee spokesperson who responded to our request for comment highlighted another initiative this year: finalizing the regulation on the energy efficiency of data centers. Published in December last year, the regulation will establish an EU-wide scheme to rate the sustainability of EU data centers, which is intended to increase transparency and promote data center designs that reduce energy and water consumption.

Transparency Remains a Big Issue

Initiatives like the one referenced by the Joint Research Center are welcomed by Thompson, who says transparency is a major challenge to data center sustainability. “Much of the water usage discussions and permits are done under shell company names,” Thompson says, “so it can be devilishly hard to work out which company has bought water rights, and for how much – and all of this is locked up in very tight non-disclosure agreements, making it hard for the public to discover this type of information.”

As an example, the analyst cites South Carolina, where years of litigation were needed to uncover Google’s municipal water consumption. “As these companies have all been leaders and trendsetters in terms of renewable energy use, it would be great to see them also reach new levels of openness around water usage philosophies.”

Renewables Haven’t Won the War on ‘Dirty Energy’

When asked about sustainability challenges the industry faces, Bahn and Sharma referenced the “carbon intensity of grids,” and said that the commercial non-viability (thus far) of alternative energy sources is a hindrance.

Thompson agrees. “By their own reporting, the hyperscalers are not able to bring on renewables fast enough to keep up with their load growth. Behind the scenes, this load growth is causing power companies to delay the closure of dirty energy sources, and even propose bringing new dirty energy sources online for future demand.”

We’re All Moving Towards the Edge

Carsten Baumann, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Solution Architect at Schneider Electric, is looking ahead not just to this year, but also to a few years down the road.

“Over the next few years, the combined energy requirements of all edge applications will surge,” he told Data Center Knowledge, referring to non-traditional data center computing that concentrates on servers nearer to the data requests. “We predict that by 2030, they will exceed the energy needs of hyperscalers.”

What does that mean for sustainability in the short term? “Considering the explosive growth, and moving into the new year, the industry needs new sustainability metrics that account for evolving data center environments,” Baumann said. “These metrics will be crucial to ensuring the creation of new edge data center capacity in a responsible manner. To track progress and ensure compliance with green standards, operators can employ data center infrastructure management (DCIM) software and other digital tools that enhance visibility without requiring the user to physically monitor operations.”

Despite these challenges, Baumann believes digitization and autonomous operations will ultimately improve data center sustainability. “2024 will be the year that edge facility operators better understand and measure the greenness of their operations,” he said, “and digitization is the key to a net-zero future in this industry.”

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