What Stands in the Way of the Net-Zero Data Center?

Data center operators and industry insiders explore the challenges and opportunities on the path to a net-zero data center.

Drew Robb

May 9, 2024

5 Min Read
net zero emissions symbol chips 3D illustration

Sustainability in the data center industry has steadily grown in importance over the last few years. For those in the trenches, though, there are plenty of constraints to be addressed on the journey to net zero. While there are plenty of barriers, there are also opportunities. And the unprecedented demand for AI has given fresh impetus to the need for sustainability programs.

Sustainability impacts the entire data center lifecycle: design, construction, procurement, operations, maintenance, and retirement of equipment and facilities. For some, the sheer extent of it can be overwhelming. So, what steps should existing data centers take now? How can they make steady progress toward becoming a net-zero data center? And what factors should those designing data centers consider that can materially reduce carbon footprints?

Data Center Sustainability: Act Now

Many companies have set sustainability targets for 2030. That may seem like a long way away, and might cause some to decide that sustainability can “wait another year.” That would be a mistake, according to Priyal Chheda, sustainability lead for architecture and interior design firm Corgan.

“Work is needed now if targets for 2030 are to be met,” Chheda said during Data Center World 2024, which took place last month in Washington, DC. “Instead of focusing on the difficulties, data center managers should look for opportunities for good return on investment via sustainability measures.”

Related:Data Center Sustainability Predictions, Hopes, and Questions for 2024

Examples include spending money now on renewable energy and on-site generation projects that will lower utility bills and achieve payback within a few years. Similarly, a rework of the power and cooling infrastructure can reap efficiency rewards and energy bring costs down.

Sustainable Construction

Chheda brought up mass timber as a possible alternative to concrete and steel in data center construction. Mass timber refers to engineered wood products made from smaller wood elements such as dimension lumber, veneers, or strands and connecting them with adhesives, dowels, nails, or screws to create load-bearing building components. They are being used as beams, columns, floor and wall panels, roof rafters, and more.

“Mass timber can be a more sustainable alternative for some of the steel and concrete that goes into our buildings,” said Paul Shorthouse, an economic development expert who serves as managing director for Circular Economy Leadership Canada. “It is safe, fire-resistant, of comparable strength, lighter weight, and can be disassembled and refurbished with relative ease or its value re-captured at the end of life.” 

Related:Vertiv Launches Sustainable Wooden Data Center Solution

Chheda doesn’t believe mass timber is a good option for data halls as it may not be able to take the load. Engineers and architects should determine those areas of the data center where it makes sense based on its tensile strength, fire resistance and cost. But concrete poses its own sustainability due to its high carbon footprint. The main culprit is said to be Portland cement. Various alternatives are being evaluated. For instance, a company known as Blue Planet is using CO2 as part of a process to create net-zero carbon concrete.

Regulatory Pressure Mounts

Some data center operators are under pressure from management to improve their sustainability credentials. But those in certain states and countries face growing regulatory efforts to curtail carbon emissions.

“Regulations are quickly coming down the pike and investors often impose sustain requirements,” explained Karen Petersburg, vice president of data center development and construction at PowerHouse Data Centers. “There has been a big shift from greenwashing towards engaging in legitimate sustainability efforts.”

These regulations are often based upon emerging metrics that aim to quantify carbon footprints and supply chain sustainability compliance. For example, environment product declaration (EPD) provides standardized environmental information about the life cycle impact of a product. EPDs are independently verified and utilized as part of lifecycle assessments (LCA) that are used in sustainability measurements across a vendor’s entire supply chain. These assessments unearth issues such as children being used in mining, poor recycling and disposal practices, and reliance on fossil fuels. But this is far from an exact science.

“Lifecycle assessments are difficult due to EPD not being standardized,” said Chheda.

One effort to bring order to a confusion of metrics is known as Green Globes certification by the Green Build Initiative (GBI). It is a tiered system for building certification system based on environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and resilience.

Embodied Carbon

Embodied carbon is another useful sustainability metric for data centers.

“Reducing embodied carbon is a critical action to help stop the Earth from overheating that also happens to be economically beneficial and highly achievable for homebuilders,” said RMI embodied carbon expert Chris Magwood. “Through smart material choices and simple interventions, builders can substantially lower carbon emissions without compromising cost or performance.”

The US EPA defines embedded carbon as the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the upstream – extraction, production, transport, and manufacturing – stages of a product's life.

“The net-zero data center is only possible if we greatly reduce embodied carbon,” said Phill Lawson-Shanks, chief innovation and technology officer at Aligned Data Centers. “Concrete alternatives will play a part as concrete is the biggest sink of carbon globally.” 

He admitted that many within the traditional supply chain go blank when you ask for LCAs and EPDs.

“We need traceability such as where the copper came from if we are to change how we think about sourcing, sustainability, and recycling,” said Lawson-Shanks. “It is all about holding the supply chain accountable.”

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About the Author(s)

Drew Robb

Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications.

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