Data Center Sustainability Comes to the Fore (Even More) in 2023

Dec. 15, 2022
Sustainability will be more important than ever for the data center sector in 2023, according to our DCF Executive Roundtable panel, who say the data center sector must be a key player in addressing the climate crisis.

Sustainability will be more important than ever in 2023, according to our DCF Executive Roundtable panel, who say the data center sector must be a key player in addressing the climate crisis. but it will require action, commitment and the ability to navigate a complex landscape of opportunities, challenges and tradeoffs. 

Our panelists include Peter Panfil from Vertiv, Phillip Marangella of EdgeConneX, Schneider Electric's Frank Nash, Shannon Hulbert of Opus Interactive, NTT Global Data Centers' Steven Lim, and Eric Boonstra of Iron Mountain Data Centers. The conversation is moderated by Rich Miller, the founder and editor of Data Center Frontier. Here’s today’s discussion:

Data Center Frontier: What will be the important themes in sustainability in 2023 for data centers and cloud operators?              

Peter Panfil, Vertiv: We’ve reached a point where “sustainability” is likely to be embedded in virtually every conversation in the data center industry and with good reason. Data centers consume significant amounts of energy and water – an estimated 2-3% of global electricity, with forecasts putting that number at 4% by 2030. A single hyperscale facility consumes enough electricity to power up to 37,000 homes, and a data center using evaporative cooling can use 3-5 million gallons of water every day – that’s as much as a city of 30,000 people.

 It’s only natural – and prudent – for governments to apply more scrutiny to any industry with that level of resource consumption. Already, in places like Singapore and Ireland, new data center construction is subject to government review and requires compliance with stringent environmental criteria. So, whether data center operators work to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint in an effort to address the ongoing climate crisis or they do so to meet anticipated regulatory requirements, the result is the same – sustainability is built into everything they do.

 What does that look like in 2023? Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: High-efficiency power and cooling solutions become a priority, and overlooked efficiency features, such as Dynamic On-Line Mode, will be employed more liberally. New builds are likely to prioritize water-free designs and low-GWP refrigerants. Organizations will embrace modular designs and systems to reduce waste and better match capacity to demand.

 We could also see more aggressive decarbonization efforts, including a push to explore alternatives to using diesel. Diesel is a major hurdle to operating carbon free. The industry is looking for other options for extended backup power, including relying on batteries for longer runtimes. Hydrogen fuel cell technologies are evolving and becoming more mature, and we could see fuel cells used as continuous duty batteries as early as 2023.

One last thing on sustainability: This is a difficult subject for the data center industry. Data centers provide immeasurable service to the world and the growth of the industry is unquestionably beneficial, but it’s also true that continued growth creates challenges in terms of energy and water use. We are proud of the proactive steps the industry continues to take to address those challenges, and we look forward to working with our customers and other industry leaders to continue to do everything we can to build a better, more sustainable data center ecosystem going forward.

Eric Boonstra, Iron Mountain Data Centers: To take one step back first, I think it's worth mentioning that the industry’s shift to renewables has had a huge impact over the past years. So much so that, despite the exponential growth in ICT demand, power usage and emission levels have not risen proportionally. According to the IEA, between 2015 and 2021 Internet traffic rose by 440% and data center workloads by 260%, while data center energy usage rose by between 10 and 60%.

The cloud and colocation industry has been a key driver of progress through encouraging renewable investment and ‘greening the grid’ along the way.

Despite great progress,  we still have a long way to go as an industry and for us in 2023, further implementing our commitment to 100% clean electricity,100 percent of the time in all our data centers by 2040 through 24/7 clean energy tracking is the main point of focus.

For the industry as a whole sustainability can only be improved through collaboration across the industry and with governments and standards organizations. So ongoing efforts in improving collaboration and legislation, next to making everybody in the industry aware that we can be part of the solution instead of the problem as ‘’we are in this together’’ must continue to be repeated. 

Steven Lim, NTT Global Data Centers: Sustainability in the data center industry is no longer just a talking point — providers, clients and partners are all having to look at real ways to improve our efficiency and sustainability at every level of our business. Simply purchasing RECs is no longer good enough, and our teams are working to figure out how we can adopt and implement real change. We all know data centers  consume a great deal of energy, and how we use that energy efficiently will constantly be a challenge.  

NTT has made significant climate and sustainability commitments, and our data centers are obviously a large part of that. I don’t believe there are any consistent themes yet with regards to the data center and sustainability, but I think there are several areas of focus that seem to be emerging. 

First and foremost is a move to denser environments and new corresponding cooling solutions such as submerging chips and computers in liquid.  We also continue to look at alternatives for back-up systems such as moving from diesel to HVO in all of our generators. 

Finally, we are working with power providers in all of our markets to uncover ways to develop green energy and move to completely renewable power sources.  While all of these represent parts of the larger story, it remains to be seen what broader trends will drive adoption across our industry. 

Phillip Marangella, EdgeConneX: Given the number of corporate commitments to achieving specific sustainability goals by 2030 or 2040, data center providers and cloud operators need to view 2023 as a year for action, for transparency, and for measurability. Many of the sustainability goals defined by large service providers are aggressive and commendable. But as the end of the decade starts to loom larger and move toward us a lot more quickly, some of the tactics currently employed will come under greater, more public scrutiny by third parties. Actions will carry more weight than words in 2023.

In addition, it’s important to note that there is an important interplay between data center providers and customers when it comes to sustainability. The best, most efficient, most planet-friendly data center in the world won’t operate as effectively if they aren’t connected to the cleanest available energy sources or if waste, water, and emissions are not minimized at every step of the operations process.

A lot of these decisions are ultimately made by the customers of a data center and over time it will be incumbent on customers to factor in the cost-benefit analysis that drives some economic decision-making.

Frank Nash, Schneider Electric: Over the past 15 years, the data center industry has helped lead the private sector in both sustainability ambition and action.  Power Use Effectiveness has fallen precipitously over that period, all while data center operators have ramped up procurement of renewable energy to power remaining loads. Today, carbon neutrality and net-zero goals are common across the industry as data center companies seek pathways to continue to grow, and to do so sustainably.

Data center operators are facing external conditions that they may not have counted on when designing existing data centers, and that are constraining the design and location of new ones. The industry is looking for new solutions that will make it more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Increasingly, data center operators are being forced to contend with the effects of climate change even as they work to fight it.  Water scarcity is a good example of this. Currently, data center operators have trouble siting new facilities in areas where there is competition for water resources. Arizona is a hotspot for data center development, and municipalities there are passing ordinances that allow them to turn down requests for water withdrawals if they don’t feel that they’re aligned with local priorities. 

We’re seeing the same thing worldwide as local communities become more protective over their water resources.  Data center operators need to look at how drought is affecting power availability in the areas where they are building. Water is a key element throughout our energy system, and when we are dealing with drought, our ability to produce energy gets squeezed in a hundred different ways. Our customers tell us that power availability has become a major driver for data center placement, and the industry needs to track how drought may affect this. 

Extreme heat and severe weather have similarly presented increasing challenges to the design, location, and operation of data centers, and the threat is likely to continue to grow in the near future. 

Data center operators need to convince their host communities and countries that they are part of the solution -- and not just competitors for scarce energy resources. We believe that a new, cleaner, and more resilient energy system is possible, and digitization will be at the heart of it.  All digital solutions, of course, run through data centers.     

Shannon Hulbert, Opus Interactive: Availability, cost, and long term reliability are  driving demand for energy-efficiency and investment in renewables and innovative energy solutions. I think this trend will become part of the fabric of the way the industry delivers both power and water. Save energy/water, save costs.

Micro grids and energy optimization isn’t a want-to-have for some organizations to differentiate, it’s the norm to meet reliability and cost requirements.

NEXT: A recap of our DCF Executive Roundtable, with links to all articles and the insights and full transcripts of commentary by our six industry experts.. 

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About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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