​​Can energy-guzzling data centres really become green?

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By Kevin Wee, Director, Data Centre Vertical Market, APAC

For many of us, online access has become ingrained in our daily lives. The pandemic has accelerated the move to a digital lifestyle of working, studying, connecting with loved ones and relaxing - and the "new normal" looks set to stay for the foreseeable future.

Our digital lifestyle has undoubtedly resulted in higher Internet traffic and shifted the demand dynamics for data centres. Just consider the volume of video calls, streaming services and multiple messaging applications in use during a day when working from home. It's no wonder that some 1.7MB of data was created every second by every person during 2020, and that a whopping 90 per cent of the world's data was created in the last two years alone.

Have we considered the energy needed to capture and manage the deluge of data we are generating and consuming in our business dealings and private lives?

As the backbone of the Internet, data centres store, move, process and analyse the data needed to power any online service. A data centre is also an energy-guzzling facility, with nearly 40 per cent of energy going to its cooling systems to maintain a temperature-controlled environment, round the clock. Estimates further suggest that data centres account for up to 5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Just as your laptop heats up with heavy usage, server racks housing computing equipment in a data centre emit heat when handling more data, thereby needing an efficient cooling solution. A fully efficient data centre is one that requires one kilowatt of energy to cool the servers for every kilowatt of power used by these servers. That is not possible in reality due to the inevitable energy wastage and non-computing electrical installations including air-conditioning and lighting.

Against this backdrop, can data centres be carbon-neutral, or even net carbon-negative? Are green data centres a paradoxical concept?

Strategies to Optimise Energy Use

Data centre operators are working to drive down energy consumption to advance sustainability in their facilities and decrease costs. One way is to invest in energy-efficient commercial chiller equipment that offers competitive energy performance and proven reliability. Smart buildings technology providers like Johnson Controls are offering advanced chiller equipment, which uses low global warming potential refrigerant and is optimised to reduce average annual electricity consumption by 35 per cent. To push the envelope further, data centre providers could even consider harnessing free-cooling chiller solutions, which include evaporative cooling technologies for even better energy efficiency.

Using digital resources and analytics is another way to optimise energy usage. In a typical data centre, the servers' load will vary throughout the day. A smart solution to monitor the energy consumption patterns allows data centre managers to configure the optimal use of their resources, as well as to identify and diagnose equipment problems and take proactive steps to fix them. In some cases, smart chillers can reduce unplanned and emergency repairs by as much as 66 per cent.

It's also time to challenge the convention of operating data centres at low temperatures of 20 degrees Celcius to 22 deg C. Evidence supports the running of data centres hotter than they currently are (by 1 or 2 deg C) without any significant sacrifices in system reliability - and reap up to 5 per cent savings in power consumption for chillers. Even Singapore's IMDA has conducted a tropical data centre trial in which environmental temperatures were tested to a high of 38 deg C and ambient humidity at 90 per cent or more.

Sustainable energy sources should be considered to power data centres, wherever possible. Singapore, for instance, has announced plans to quadruple its solar deployment by 2025, and working towards deploying at least 2 gigawatt-peak (GWp) of solar, which is about 3 per cent of the country's total projected energy consumption, by 2030.

The Road Ahead

Singapore has a tricky job to balance being an international hub while juggling to have data centres with low emissions. The local data centre industry is expected to experience robust growth, but most of the facilities were designed and constructed without sustainability and energy conservation in mind. In fact, data centres account for 7 per cent of the country's total energy consumption; this could potentially increase to 12 per cent by 2030.

The government has taken steps to incentivise and promote sustainable data centres in the nation, but more can be done. The whole process of developing data centres needs to be reconsidered - starting with power usage and efficiency needs at the design stage, and not towards the completion of the build, or when it's time to retrofit the building.

What type of data centres do we want to see being built in Singapore? Data centre builders and owners have to face a tough question: Will they be part of the solution, or will they exacerbate the problem?

Sustainability concerns, coupled with advances in cooling and heat management technology, have shifted the way data centres are being designed, managed and maintained. We're seeing some headways in that direction - and that should be the way forward. Otherwise, we'll be sacrificing our future to fulfil our insatiable need for data consumption and connectivity.

This article was first published on The Business Times print and online portal.

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