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5 learnings from the decarbonisation of data centres

Industries worldwide are rallying to show their commitment to net-zero by 2050. Data centres have already made huge strides forward in the race for energy efficiency, unearthing some valuable insights along the way.

Having signed the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact in 2021, leading operators like Equinix, Google, IBM and Intel have decarbonised rapidly through a combination of game-changing innovation and collaboration.

Here are five transferable learnings for other energy-intensive industries as they journey toward decarbonisation.

1. Shift to decentralised power

“Carbon fuel is not sustainable, it has to go and everyone realises this,” Kevin Maguire, Associate Director at RKD.

Renewable supplies are ramping up quickly, but cutting out fossil fuels will radically increase electricity demand.

To ease pressure on grid infrastructure, Amazon and Facebook have slowed the building of large facilities across Europe. Both organisations have taken out purchase power agreements (PPAs) to cover their energy use and leave the country with more renewable energy. Some data centres use energy resources on-site, like batteries, with enough power for several minutes if the grid fails.

Many organisations are beginning to look beyond grids, exploring energy resources like wind and solar. Fuel cells are another alternative – powered by ‘green hydrogen’ with no emissions but warm air and water. But power like wind and sun are intermittent, so Google and Microsoft have moved towards hour-by-hour calculations of the emissions generated by their site to achieve net-zero continuously, not just on average.

2. Innovate at the construction stage

“What we’re finding now with sustainability is we’re being asked to get involved in projects earlier and earlier,” Greg Hayden, Ethos.

Data centres are shifting focus to the construction phase to shrink their carbon footprint. Here, contractors are helping to lead the way with the increasing use of green concrete.

The Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) recently launched a road map to cut almost five billion tonnes of carbon via a 25 per cent emission reduction by 2030 – green concrete will be vital in hitting that target. This type of concrete only uses waste material for one of its components; it can also be defined as concrete that doesn’t lead to environmental destruction.

In the meantime, there are a number of initiatives and efforts to decarbonise during the construction phase. One startup, CarbonCure, reduces the emissions of the concrete industry by injecting waste CO2 into the mix. It hopes to remove 500 megatons of carbon dioxide annually from the concrete industry by 2030. Amazon and Microsoft, two companies with significant footprints in Ireland, have invested in the company.

3. Build offsite for sustainability

“The efficiencies gained through introducing modular data centres cannot be matched through brick and mortar construction,” Robert Hudock, E+I Engineering.

While whole data centre buildings have yet to be trucked in entirely from the factory, that’s certainly the way things seem to be heading with a range of modular construction taking place offsite.

Designing for manufacture and assembly in controlled environments doesn’t just streamline the building process, but it can improve quality and sustainability too. Often, these elements are pre-built in the factory, tested, and then installed right away, whether it’s a data centre, retail unit, factory, or pharmaceuticals plant.

Along with reducing construction time, modular building lowers costs and the need for as many experienced hands at the site itself.

4. Embrace a digital infrastructure

“Technology can be utilised by high-energy users to better serve the wider society,” Sinéad Hickey, John Sisk & Son.

We’re facing what Accenture has called a twofold-imperative. Not only must we build more environmentally friendly technology, but we must also deploy the technology responsibly to become more sustainable. One way of doing this is through digitisation.

Digitising supply chains is key to understanding civil, architectural, groundworks, mechanical and electrical information from the whole envelope. This way of working can help drive more sustainable decision-making and greater efficiency in building at speed.

Digital platforms can help move projects forward and provide a single source of truth. Quality, up-to-date data can reduce mistakes, drive operational knowledge-transfer, and streamline the handover process.

5. Be smart with water

“True engineering and smart use of technology is key to helping clients achieve their sustainability goals,” Eoin Gilsenan, Whitewater.

With water scarcity now a global issue and data centres needing so much of it, these facilities have come under public scrutiny. Enter WUE (water usage effectiveness) – a metric developed by The Green Grid to help data centres measure how much water a facility uses for cooling and other building needs.

By using WUE in conjunction with power and carbon usage effectiveness metrics, an organisation can reduce the amount of water and electrical power needed to run the data centre.

Hyperscalers like Facebook and Microsoft are already actively monitoring WUE. Facebook reports its WUE ratio, making it publicly available.

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