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Three Considerations for Achieving More Sustainable Data Centers

While the industry has made great strides to rein in emissions, it’s clear more work needs to be done to achieve carbon-neutral data centers.

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Alpesh Saraiya

Alpesh Saraiya

Data centers power the online applications people depend on for work, entertainment and communications. They also require significant energy. Data centers are currently responsible for about three percent of the world’s electricity use – greater than most countries’ consumption. From a carbon emissions standpoint, data centers represent two percent of the world’s entire carbon footprint, which is roughly the same as the entire airline industry.

Data center facility managers are aware of this issue. In fact, a recent survey of data center facility managers found over one-third of respondents (34%) considered improving energy efficiency as one of their top priorities, and 54% included the ability to reduce building energy use as a key area in supporting sustainability goals.

While the industry has made great strides to rein in emissions, it’s clear more work needs to be done to achieve carbon-neutral data centers, all while continuing to meet the ever-expanding demand for their compute and storage services. Currently, there are 600 hyperscale data centers globally (a nearly 40% increase from 2018) – and that number keeps growing. As we become a more connected society, we need our data centers to not only run and scale effectively but also sustainably.

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For data center facility managers ready to work towards their sustainability goals, here are three key steps to jumpstart the process:

#1 Integrate alternative energy sources via microgrids

Microgrids are local energy systems that can operate autonomously and serve a discrete geographic footprint, such as a college campus, hospital complex, business center – or facilities like data centers. The implementation of microgrids enables data centers to gain greater control of energy costs. Data center would use microgrids primarily to offset peak demand – and therefore would never be totally dependent on them.

Data center facility managers should consider working with firms that offer such microgrid solutions, enabling more efficient integration of alternative energy sources such as solar arrays, fuel cells and batteries. This allows a scalable approach for operators to quickly enhance functionality and improve total cost of ownership.

#2 Reduce energy consumption through building management systems

The biggest user of energy consumption within a data center is its core information technology (IT) equipment. While there is the actual useful computing, storage and networking work being performed, inefficiencies such as stranded server capacity also occur. As such, server consolidation – the process of migrating compute and storage workloads from multiple computers to one – can help reduce energy use. As well, data center facilities themselves (i.e., operations technology (OT) critical power and critical thermal assets) also may consume significant energy. As such, OT should be a significant consideration in efforts to reduce energy consumption.

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Upgrades to existing systems to use energy efficient equipment as well as advanced building controls and artificial intelligence-based software can help deliver valuable savings by autonomously and continuously optimizing set points versus on a manual basis.

#3: Improve operational efficiency with asset monitoring tools

To maximize operational efficiency and, in turn, energy efficiency, data center operators can look to optimize IT power, data center space and data center cooling, and eliminate power inefficiencies. The quickest way to realize a reduction of energy consumption – and naturally, overall operating costs – is to incorporate sustainable practices such as digitizing assets and monitoring them using deep, intrinsic-level sensing of their operational health.

Combining energy storage, analytics, forecasting and economic optimization, asset monitoring tools automate the selection of the most appropriate energy source for operations. Doing so allows facilities to manage their load more efficiently all while reducing energy costs and maintaining uptime requirements. In addition, digitization of asset health enables a more intelligent and predictable condition-based maintenance which can help reduce downtime, increase critical asset longevity and reduce OpEx. Using asset monitoring tools to improve operational efficiency has been shown to reduce energy consumption by up to 15%.

The global demand for data is insatiable – and it will be an evolving challenge to offset continued growth with sustainability improvements. Data center facility managers should consider that achieving energy efficiency, cost reductions and sustainability goals are all aligned – making sustainability not only an organizational benefit but a global one.

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