If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that even the safest predictions can go awry.
They can also be completely shattered at the whim of a new variant, an unexpected political outcome, or myriad other factors.
But with the climate crisis we’re facing, it’s hard to imagine a world where sustainability and climate actions aren’t going to dominate business and technology decisions next year, as sadly, there may not be much of a world to imagine at all if we don’t make the right decisions now.
As we move into 2022, we’re seeing a dramatic acceleration in actions to address sustainability and navigate the climate crisis within the data centre industry.
Long-held conversations around efficiency and utilisation in the data centre are evolving to reflect a more comprehensive and aggressive focus on sustainability. This movement recognises the urgency of the climate crisis, the relationship between resource availability and rising costs, and shifting political winds in Australia and around the world.
Addressing rising concerns in our digital pipes
Climate change action from data centre leaders is timely – the industry has recently found itself in the firing line for its growing contribution to energy consumption, estimated in Australia to be at around 3.5 per cent now, with up to 500 megawatts of new data centre capacity to be generated in the next five years.
The reality is a bit more nuanced – we are becoming a far more digitised world and data centres are essential to power that. Further, while data centres’ share of energy consumption may be increasing, it eliminates other kinds of energy consumption. Think of all the virtual events that have happened over the last few years, and how many will remain that way, or hybrid, possibly for years to come – all that streaming requires some heavy lifting within data centres, but it also cuts out emissions from travelling in planes and other vehicles.
Still, there are many ways for the data centre industry to cut emissions and reduce its climate impact even as it powers further digitisation.
We’re already seeing greater use of alternative and renewable energy technologies and zero-carbon energy sources – for example, water-free cooling technologies – being implemented or retrofitted into data centre design. While these technologies are typically observed in smaller structures, the bigger players aren’t too far behind on the uptake.
Operationally, we predict some organisations will embrace sustainable energy strategies using digital solutions that match energy use with 100 per cent renewable energy, and ultimately operate on 24/7 sustainable energy. Such hybrid distributed energy systems can provide both AC and DC power, adding options to improve efficiencies and eventually allowing data centres to operate carbon free.
Fuel cells, renewable assets, and long-duration energy storage systems, including battery energy storage systems (BESS) and lithium-ion batteries will all play a vital role in providing sustainable, resilient, and reliable outcomes. Thermal systems that use zero water are in demand, and we will see refrigerants with high global warming potential (GWP) phased down in favour of low-GWP options, minimising the risk for when leakage may occur.
Businesses doing their part
While the spotlight is on the data centre industry to reduce emissions, it’s important to remember that many businesses still don’t want to go all in on the public cloud – citing security concerns – and that means almost all organisations have their own internal, on-premises data centre/s within Australia’s wider tech ecosystem.
These might be edge data centres used at remote sites such as mines, or in branch facilities in the regions, or they might be larger computer rooms for businesses who have not – or not yet – migrated to the cloud.
At an individual level, this kind of infrastructure doesn’t appear to have as large a carbon footprint. But collectively, it’s actually higher than larger colocation data centres. The efficiencies and economies of scale present in a facility (designed to do nothing but house and manage data centre infrastructure), simply far outweigh what can be achieved in an organisation’s internal data centre.
And so, the opportunities to progress sustainability initiatives within on-premises data centres are even greater in 2022 and we predict companies will look at their infrastructure and how it can be more efficient.
We’ve performed a number of energy optimisation exercises in some of the largest business users of IT energy in Australia, and have often yielded upwards of 30 per cent efficiency improvement in a short space of time.
There’s a role for all parts of the data centre industry to play in cutting emissions, and while there are plenty of new technologies coming down the track that will enable this, there is plenty that can be done now to make our digital pipes greener.
Our data-hungry nature isn’t going to change, but our approach, attitude, and action towards powering our behaviour can, and it must if we’re serious about addressing climate change.