Tech giants experimented with new energy-saving technologies for the data center, like immersion cooling, and they continued to invest in climate-friendly solutions for powering their infrastructures. But they might also be fudging the numbers a bit when it comes to just how sustainable their data centers really are.
That's the short version of key trends in data center sustainability in 2022. For the long version, keep reading. This article walks through the six most significant developments or initiatives related to sustainable data centers that have emerged over the past year, based on coverage in Data Center Knowledge.
Companies continue to invest in clean energy sourcing
For years, companies that operate large data center infrastructures have been investing in "clean" energy sourcing as part of their strategies for becoming carbon neutral or carbon negative – goals to which companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google have loudly committed.
2023 saw a continuation of that trend. Microsoft announced a deal to acquire 900 megawatts of additional solar and wind energy (which, in case you're wondering, is enough to power several hyperscale data centers). Major colocation providers, including Equinix and Digital Realty, also announced new efforts to increase clean energy sourcing.
These sorts of investments aren't exactly earth-shattering; they're merely continuations of a trend that has been in place for a long time. But if you believe that sustainable data centers are a good thing, more of the same is also good when it comes to continued investment in clean energy sourcing.
Next-generation sustainability technologies
On a more innovative front, 2022 saw increased investment by tech companies in next-generation technologies that, if they fully pan out, could deliver much more significant energy and carbon savings than resources like solar and wind power.
For example, Intel announced an effort to create a reference design for immersion cooling, a technique that involves immersing servers and other equipment in non-conductive liquids to enable hyper-efficient cooling. It remains unclear what will become of the Intel initiative, whose goal is to create the reference design using something resembling a crowd-sourced approach. But the project shows that tech companies remain committed, at least in principle, to exploring new ways of improving data center sustainability through fundamentally new technologies.
2022 also saw continued interest among tech companies in leveraging hydrogen as a power source for data centers. The technology for making this happen on a large scale isn't quite there yet, but Microsoft announced a successful proof-of-concept in summer 2022 showing that hydrogen cells could replace backup diesel-power generators for its data centers. While it's too early to get truly excited about hydrogen power in the data center, sustainability advocates have more reason at present to be optimistic about the prospects of hydrogen-powered infrastructure than they ever have.
Growing awareness of water efficiency
While energy consumption has traditionally been front and center in conversations about data center sustainability, 2022 witnessed growing awareness of the role of water consumption, too.
Most significantly, Amazon committed to publishing Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE) reports on a yearly basis. It also pledged to become water-positive, meaning it will make more water available than it consumes. Microsoft and Google Cloud have made similar pledges to water-positivity in recent years, but they haven't yet committed to disclosing comprehensive WUE data in the way Amazon did. (Google does publish some water usage data for its data centers, but it doesn't currently express the data based on the WUE metric, which was introduced by The Green Grid to provide a simple means of comparing water sustainability effectiveness across contexts.)
The increasing attention toward WUE in data centers is timely. The heat waves of 2022 – which led to at least one AWS data center outage and forced smaller data centers to spray their facilities down with hoses to prevent overheating – underlined the critical role that water plays in keeping data centers running, especially in a warming planet.
Smoke, mirrors and data center sustainability
At the same time that large tech companies were making new pledges related to keeping their data centers cleaner, some were taking actions that didn't align with their words.
Reporting from Bloomberg showed that Intel, Cisco and Equinix, among other companies, have exaggerated their sustainability gains, partly by using their financial clout to make their sustainability balance sheets appear healthier than they actually are. By purchasing renewable energy credits and carbon offsets, these companies are able to make claims to sustainability that don't always align with the actual volumes of carbon that their operations release into the atmosphere.
Pushback by Google, Facebook and Microsoft against a renewable energy project in the United States also casts some doubt on the extent to which large tech companies are fully committed to data center sustainability. In that particular case, the companies claimed that the development of additional wind farms could drive up energy costs – which may be true, but which calls into question just how eager these businesses are to transition to clean energy sourcing as completely as possible.
Issues like these don't mean that data center operators are all talk and no action when it comes to sustainability. Many of them are pursuing real initiatives to make their data centers cleaner and greener. But in some instances, they're arguably not doing all they could on the sustainability front.
That's a reminder that these businesses have many priorities, and sustainability is only one of them. They want to be climate-friendly – and they want their customers to know it – but they're still seemingly more worried about their bottom lines than about their actual carbon impact.
Updated paragraph 10 on Dec. 7, 2022 at 9:37 a.m. to include more insight into Google's water management data reporting.