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Are Green Data Centres Reliable or Just Hype?
November 21, 2022 News


Written by: Izzat Najmi, Journalist, AOPG.

Our dependency on technology has increased even more than we would have imagined. Now, in 2022, the average adult is spending 4.2 hours a day using smartphone apps and data consumption has become a vital part of our daily lives. Similarly, commercial organisations are producing, consuming and managing more data than ever before. This trend is expected to continue growing, but our insatiable appetite for technology may cause irreparable harm to our world.

The shift to the cloud has been heralded as a solution to many of our data overload issues, yet today’s data centres emit as much carbon dioxide as the whole aircraft industry.

Truth Within “Carbon Neutrality”

Despite the fact that many tech firms have claimed officially to be “carbon neutral,” the reality is murkier. Many of them buy Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) to make it look like they are doing something about climate change but they do not actually disclose how they are reducing their carbon footprint. That is a major issue, by the way.

The proportion of green energy utilised to power data centres and the proportion coming from the purchase of REC offsets is unknown given the absence of clear, transparent, and universal reporting standards.

As a temporary measure, RECs can help with emissions but they are not a permanent fix. Since it will be too late to undo the effects of the climate crisis, we must instead prioritise the construction of environmentally friendly data centres. Without consistent reporting requirements, we risk underreporting not only greenhouse gas emissions but also other potentially damaging aspects.

A survey conducted by the Uptime Institute in 2021 found that while many data centres report on power use, the electricity and water resources required to keep data centres cool are often not recorded or accounted for. The e-waste produced by the perpetual disposal of servers is not helping matters, however.

The average Dutch data centre, for instance, consumes 1 million cubic metres of water per year, which is enough to supply 19,230 households of one person with water for a whole year.

There were concerns earlier this year that North Holland residents would face water shortages because of data centres. While the local authorities later denied this assertion, it did spark alarm about the potential consequences of burgeoning data centres’ thirst in a warming world. The question is whether or not technology and sustainability can coexist.

The increasing importance of data processing is evidenced by our reliance on technology in both business and daily life.

While at first glance data consumption and sustainability may appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, support is growing for the idea of greener, more sustainable versions of cloud computing. Large tech firms and cloud service providers are under increasing pressure to help consumers achieve their goal of a carbon-neutral lifestyle.

Going Green

Every modern data centre gives serious thought to environmental impact. With the goal of reducing their impact on the planet’s delicate ecosystem, “green” data centres make use of renewable energy sources like solar power and energy conservation methods like chill-to-cool servers.

The critical state of the planet’s ecology has led many to believe that a growing awareness of environmental issues is driving the call to “go green.” While this is a valid justification, other economic factors are also driving the green movement.

According to Asher Ling, Managing Director of Singapore, Princeton Digital Group, data centres will have to play a key leadership role in creating a sustainable digital economy over the next decade. The current focus by Data Centre operators on developing next-generation green data centres is not motivated by CSR or marketing purposes, but more for existential reasons. Since the earliest beginnings of the data centre industry, operators have been focused on energy efficiency and operational optimisation due to commercial motivations. However, with the acceleration towards Digital Transformation over the past couple of years, Data Centre Operators are becoming cognizant of the strategic role we play – providing and supporting the internet infrastructure on a massive scale while aggregating the digital carbon footprints of all the end-users including enterprises and people.

Asher continues, in response to pledges made by nations to reduce carbon emissions by a certain percentage by a certain date, measures have been or will be enacted to limit the aggregate carbon footprint of all industries. This means that a “brown to green” energy transition programme is essential for all nations but that no single business or sector can tackle this problem alone. Due to their massive energy consumption and capacity to rally the internet infrastructure ecosystem, green data centres have the rare chance to take the lead in decarbonisation innovation and exploring new renewable energy projects.

What do Environmentalists Say?

Independent environmentalist Ali Nawaz Hanif predicts a massive uptick in demand for Data Centres as a result of developments in AI, ML, IoT, and other upcoming technologies. He expresses worry over the ecological system’s potential for harm from any new infrastructure construction.

On the topic of whether green data centres are really working or just an act, Ali stated, “The main concern about their green policies is where these data centres are receiving their energy supply.” This raises the question of whether or not “green” data centres are effective. Does it come from clean, sustainable energy, or traditional fuels? If the public cannot review the company’s disclosures, then it can be considered as them just riding the sustainable marketing wave to avoid accountability. According to Ali, Google is currently the most open company about its environmental initiatives.

Plenty of providers of data centres have stated that even a 1% reduction in unfavourable impacts, such as carbon footprint emission and energy consumption, is a step in the right direction toward achieving sustainability. Is it possible, though, to consider annual growth of 1% to be successful? Data centre infrastructure is expanding at a double-digit rate, according to Ali Nawaz, who attributed this to the impending demand and supply gap. As a result, settling for a 1% cut is not adequate.

“We need radical steps to claim anything to be an achievement,” Ali emphasised.

These radical steps include:

  • Legislation to set standards for newly planned data centres where they are sourced by renewable energy.
  • Mandatory 3rd party or environmental audits to keep track of their performance to keep their official green certificates or titles.
  • Sourcing for the infrastructure development for the data centre needs to be as green as it can be which helps impact all stakeholders positively.

A final question that may still linger in people’s minds is, are there ways for us to continue to embrace more technologies like the cloud without damaging the environment?

Ali Nawaz’s answer is simply beautiful:

“In my opinion with emerging technologies, we have to brace ourselves for more damage to the ecosystem if needful legislations, laws and regulations are not designed and implemented across the board. Today we are slightly aware because a few of us are conscious about the future of our planet, so it may be less damaging than the damage that happened with the advancement since the middle of the last century. We need mass awareness campaigns to ensure that we keep these hollow claim makers at bay and help highlight the real change makers to have a positive impact now and in the future.”